Fiddlin’

Ok. I’m going to get right to it and list the ingredients that went into this dish, in the vain hope that you won’t immediately click away, that you’ll trust me that not only is this dish delicious, it’s not in anyway over-the-top, that it’s actually quite subtle, even with the coconut sauce, crab, curry, fiddlehead ferns, and hazelnuts that went into it.

It may seem like an odd combination, fiddlehead ferns, lemongrass, and hazelnuts, but I promise it isn’t.  The coconut sauce that covers the dish is light, airy, and very mild.  The toasted hazelnuts add warmth to the crisp flavors of fiddleheads and crab.  The sea bass, which is really interchangeable with any fish you can find, lends a touch of crispy brownness from the skin.  All in all, everything works.

The recipe made more coconut sauce than we needed, about half too much, but I’m looking forward to trying it as a base for a chowder this weekend, and you could certainly sub it in for the coconut milk here.

If you can find fiddlehead ferns, grab them up for this dish.  It would also work with green beans, but not nearly as well I think.  Fiddlehead ferns have an astringent brightness that’s not quite comparable to green beans, or anything else for that matter. Contrary to what the lovely, wonderful people I met this week think, fiddleheads are totally not overrated in my book. ; ) I like to steam them for about 10 minutes, to break down the fibrousness but make sure, however you cook them, to rinse them in a good lot of water two or three times, to get all the dirt that’s clinging in the tendrils.

And while I find this next statement thoroughly pull-your-hair-out, I don’t think you should bother with this dish unless you have a good source of crab.  Now by good source, I don’t mean you need to live in Seattle, or Maine, but it means that you should probably have a fish-monger, one in his very own storefront, not in the supermarket (well, some supermarkets are fine) and your crab should not come in a can.  While I think canned crab is fine for cakes, or cooked dishes, this crab is practically untouched, not cooked at all, and needs to taste like crab, not tin. If you don’t have a good fish guy, and you live in my area, my favorites are Buckingham Seafood and Heller’s.  And Nassau Seafood in Princeton is great, too.

If you can find good crab though, this is as good a preparation as any for it.  The curry lightly scents the crabmeat, whose sweetness is offset by the fiddleheads.  And the toasted hazelnuts and hazelnut oil add a fatty, crunchy bite.  After this dinner, I’m starting to believe that anything would benefit from toasted hazelnuts.  After this dinner, really, I’d believe anything.  It’s one of those happy-feeling meals, when you end it a little high, smiling, and excited; an out-of-the-box kind of meal that makes you start wildly wondering where you next meal will go.  Any ideas?

Black sea bass with fiddlehead ferns, curried crab, and hazelnuts

serves 6

for the crab salad

1/2 pound fiddlehead ferns, cleaned
1 pound freshly-picked crabmeat, picked over for shell pieces
1 bunch scallions, sliced
1 tsp Madras curry powder, or to taste
2 teaspoons lime juice
salt

for the coconut sauce

1 can unsweetened coconut milk
1 cup good chicken stock, preferably homemade
1 stalk lemongrass
1 dried bird’s eye chile
1 two-inch piece of ginger, sliced
salt, pepper

for the completed dish

6 fillets black sea bass, seasoned with salt and pepper
handful of hazelnuts, toasted and skins rubbed off with a kitchen towel

hazelnut oil

Steam cleaned fiddlehead ferns for 10 minutes of so, until tender.  In a medium bowl, combine crab, scallions, curry powder, and lime juice.  Add fiddleheads.  Season to taste with salt; set aside.

In a small saucepan combine coconut milk and stock, bring to a boil, lower heat, and simmer for 20 minutes.  Add lemongrass, chile, and ginger and bring back to a boil.  Turn off heat and set aside for 40 minutes. (Can be made ahead.)  Once rested, run sauce through a sieve and discard solids.  Season with salt and pepper and heat back up on the stove for completed dish.

Add a touch of oil to a skillet and heat pan until almost smoking.  Add sea bass, skin side down, and cook for 4 minutes, pressing down on the skin for the first three minutes and then covering with a lid and steaming for the last minute. (You may need to do this in batches.)

Chop toasted hazelnuts.

Arrange crab salad on plates.  Place sea bass on top of crab salad and spoon warmed coconut sauce all over dish.  Top with toasted hazelnuts and a drizzling of hazelnut oil.  Season to taste with salt and serve.

Tuna pesto sandwich with radishes and avocado.

I’ve been eating a lot of tuna salad lately.  Mostly for lunch, though occasionally for breakfast instead.  I’m not sure this is a good thing, given the mercury and the fact that I’ve begun a diet and it’s not exactly a waist-friendly lunch, but I’ve also been working out good and hard at the gym and may even go to a meditation class tonight (to clear my head of this mercury, I hope) so it all evens out.

And it’s really just too good to give up.  In it, there’s a homemade spinach pesto that I made the other night for a mozzarella salad; pesto is one of those ingredients that you forget how valuable it is until you make up a batch, then realize you can make miracles out of any ol’ sandwich, or salad, or egg, or anything for that matter—homemade pesto is what miracles are made of.

And this pesto is so easy, and imprecise, that you don’t need a recipe.  Take a few handfuls of fresh spinach, locally grown if you can find it (and I know you can in New Jersey), zap it in the microwave for about a minute, then squeeq out all the water you can to make it as dry as possible.  Now throw that in the food processor with a small handful of pine nuts, another small handful of roughly chopped parmigiano cheese, and a grating of lemon zest.  Whirl it up and once it’s starting to meld, drizzle in some olive oil until you get a smooth paste.  Season with salt and pepper and ta-da: delicious.

Now that you’ve got the pesto, anything’s possible.  I’ll give you my example of goodness, because I’m quite fond of it—tuna pesto sandwich with radishes and avocado—but please do send me some of yours.

Tuna Pesto Sandwich

serves 2

  • 1 can tuna, preferably sustainably-caught and packed in oil
  • 1 heaping teaspoon homemade spinach pesto (see above)
  • 2 teaspoons mayonnaise
  • 1 teaspoon pickle relish
  • small handful of radishes, sliced thinly and roughly chopped
  • half an avocado
  • 4 slices grainy bread

In a medium bowl, combine tuna, peso, mayonnaise, relish, and radishes.  Season to taste with salt and pepper. Mound tuna salad on two slices of bread.

Scoop out the avocado flesh from the peel and mash it into a paste.  Slather avocado on other two slices of bread.  Create two sandwiches with both a tuna and avocado half.  Eat up.

Don’t Fear the Bluefish, Part Deux

When I first started blogging, I wrote a post about bluefish.  In it, I claimed that I knew the ultimate way to cook bluefish: to have Jim do it.  He let me in on his crisped-skin secret (scraping your knife against the skin to squeegee off any moisture before you cook) and it does indeed make a tasty bluefish, or any fish for that matter.  We do this crispy-skin method for fish about twice a week actually, with salmon mostly now, and it always gets great results.

But despite how good that method is, I’m telling you today: I’ve found a better way to cook bluefish, with the help of Rick Moonen of Fish Without a Doubt, who advised me on the right pan (cast-iron), the right cooking method (broiling).  The rest of the recipe came from my windowsill herb box.  I used basil, parsley, with a few cloves of garlic and the zest of a lemon, to make an herb butter.

If  you’ve never made an herb butter—with good butter and fresh herbs—then you are in for a treat.  I use them all the time, with different herbs for different proteins: sage or tarragon for chicken, rosemary or thyme for steak, dill or parsley for fish, or I just use whatever tickles my fancy (or needs to be picked from the windowsill).  I’ve never been disappointed with an herb butter and, after you start using them, you can’t stop.  I tried using an olive oil, salt, and pepper rub on a chicken dish that I’d done before with a sage-lemon butter, and oh-man was that disappointing. So, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Because once you try bluefish with herb butter, you’ll regret having it any other way.  Succulent and fresh, this recipe will turn any bluefish-hater around.  The bits of garlic in the butter get slightly burnt and give you that crackle-in-your-teeth contrast to the soft, buttery fish.  Both the basil and the parsley stand out of their own, while working well together—the parsley woody and green, the basil sweet.

To cook it, you put a cast iron pan in the oven so it sits right under the broiler, and broil the empty pan for about 15-20 minutes, so that it gets smokin’ hot.  Then you take the pan out (with good oven mitts!) and add a dollop of the herb butter.  Place the bluefish into the pan, skin side down—it will immediately cinch up and contract—and then place a few spoonfuls of the herb butter on top of the fish. (It may look like a lot of butter in the picture—and it is, about 2 ½ tablespoons.  Not all gets onto your plate but it helps to keep the fish moist when cooking.  And if you’re really worried about it, bathing suit season and all, eat a smaller piece of fish.)  Place the pan back under the broiler and broil for 3 minutes, then baste the fish by spooning the butter over it before putting it back into the oven to broil for another 2-4 minutes, until the fish is white throughout the fillet, yet still very moist.

To serve, put a piece of the fillet on a plate and drizzle some of the browned herb butter over it.  Green beans quickly cooked then tossed with olive oil and lemon are the perfect accompaniment.  Or some new potatoes on the side, little sponges to sop up the juices.  Whatever you eat it with, I’m sure you’ll love it.  Don’t fear the bluefish… just eat it.

Broiled Bluefish with Basil-Parsley Butter

serves 2

for the butter

  • 3 tablespoons good butter, softened
  • small handful basil
  • smaller handful parsley
  • zest of one lemon
  • 2-3 garlic cloves
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • black pepper
  • 1 (16-ounce) piece bluefish, skin on

Put butter in a small bowl, softening in the microwave for 5 seconds if needed.  On a cutting board, chop your herbs, garlic, and zest together.  Add the herb mixture and salt to butter and mash up to combine.  Season with black pepper

Put the oven on broil and place a cast-iron skillet in the uppermost shelf, or right under the broiler.  Let the cast-iron pan heat for 15-20 minutes, while the herb butter’s flavors are melding.

Season your bluefish with salt and pepper.  When skillet is smoking hot, take it out of the oven with good oven mitts and transfer to cutting board.  Add a spoonful of herb butter to bottom of skillet then place bluefish skin side down in skillet.  Transfer back to the oven and broil for 3 minutes.  Remove skillet and baste fish with butter.  Transfer back to oven and broil for another 2-4 minutes, or until bluefish is cooked through but still moist.

Serve bluefish with some butter drizzled on top and as much of the crispy herbs and garlic that you can pick up.  Goes particularly well with lemony green beans.

Scallops with mustard and balsamic, on a bed of arugula.

When winter starts to turn, spring changes my kitchen.  Asparagus slithers in, artichokes make a big entrance.  Strawberries begin to take the place of oranges and, most importantly, I start serving practically everything on a bed of greens.  Lamb chops, pork, canned tuna, even steak.  Peppery, spicy arugula is my green of choice, but butter lettuce, spinach, young kale, and even a mesclun mix can find its way to the bottom of my plate.  I almost feel sorry for it—always underneath the protein, like the overweight girl on the cheerleading team, having to lift up the stupid thin, blonde ones, with their bird legs and super-cute boyfriends and well-managed ponytai—not that I have any personal experience or anything…

But unpleasant high school memories aside, I’d like to give the bed of spring greens its due.  They are, for me, the best part of the meal.  Greens make the perfect bed for protein—they can be dressed with a pungent dressing, too strong for a salad, because the protein’s fat and juices will even everything out.  I like that it gives me a chance to wield heavy amounts of mustard, or use a tart balsamic vinegar with nothing else—I’m not sure why, but I like that.

This meal uses both mustard and balsamic, and they both—spicy and tart—compliment sweet scallops like nothing else.  Scallops need a bit of muscle in the way of flavor, in my opinion, because their sea-scented sweetness, while great on their own or with cream, can become too much without any contrast.  And as delicate as they look, a scallop’s flavor can stand up to the strongest mustard sauce.

But I’m inclined to say, all would be nothing if not for the arugula.  Its peppery flavor is almost as strong as the mustard and vinegar it’s dressed with but it adds a new dimension—vegetal, fresh, biting greenness underneath it all.  Kind of like spring, and the green grass that has been seemingly right under the snow and dirt all winter, that is just now peeping into the world, gearing up for the season.

Scallops with Mustard Sauce and Balsamic, on a bed of Arugula

Serves 2

  • 4-6 cups arugula
  • drizzling of balsamic vinegar
  • 6 dry sea scallops, abductor muscle removed
  • salt, pepper
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 1/3 cup dry white wine
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 2 tablespoons dijon mustard
  • 2 tablespoons cold, unsalted butter, cut into pieces
  • a small handful of sliced scallions, optional

Arrange arugula on a serving platter and drizzle balsamic vinegar over leaves, without mixing and dressing them.  Get a nonstick pan very hot, adding a bit of olive oil.  Once the oil starts to sputter, place the scallops onto the pan.  Cook for about 2-3 minutes, or until they are browned, then flip so that you can brown the other side, another 2-3 minutes.  Remove scallops, arranging them on top of the arugula.

Add shallot to the pan.  Stir to heat them and then add the white wine.  Let the wine reduce by  half, then turn off the heat and add the water and mustard.  Reduce a little bit more, so the sauce begins to thicken, then add the butter piece by piece, whisking or swirling the pan so that it eases into the mustard and creates a thick, creamy sauce.  Season with salt and pepper.  Pour over scallops and arugula, mixing everything together to get the sauce and balsamic to lightly coat everything.  Sprinkle with scallions.  Serve.

*Arugula can be arranged on platter and drizzled with balsamic a few hours a head of time.

Indian summers and spicy shrimp.

I meant to show you this recipe before Labor Day but life, as it so frequently does, got in the way.  I went out with friends over the long weekend and got a little lot too hungover to write the post on Monday.

Then, since I work in public education, my summer was over and I went back to school on September 3rd.  The first couple of days were a whirlwind of getting things in order and seeing how much the kids have grown over the summer (some of them seem to be freakishly taller than they were last June) and I never got to post about the spicy, Creole shrimp boil that we had to honor my last weekend of Summer.

But this week, here in New Jersey, has been hotter than the entire month of August and making this summery dinner is still totally appropriate.  It’s the perfect dinner to eat outside with tons of napkins and a cold beer—a great way to languidly soak in every last bit of this hot Indian summer.

If you’ve never made spiced shrimp before, you may be surprised by how much spice goes into the pot—it’s a lot.  But don’t worry, not everything gets absorbed into the shrimp, most is left on the shells once you peel it.  The potatoes however, will be bursting with spiciness (or, to be frank, flaming hot).  If you don’t want them so spiced, you could cook the potatoes first and then add them to the pot later, but I thought they were pretty amazing, especially once they were slathered in the sweet-sour, creamy horseradish sauce.

Enjoy the last few days of this hot weather—and I hope you can stay dry if you’re on the east coast!

Shrimp Boil with Spicy Horseradish Sauce

makes one big pot//from Gourmet, August 2008

  • 1 lemon, quartered
  • 5 tablespoons Creole or Cajun seasoning
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons cayenne, divided
  • 2 Turkish bay leaves or 1 California
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • 8 small boiling potatoes (about 2 inches)
  • 4 ears of corn, shucked and halved
  • 1 1/2 pounds large shrimp in shell
  • 1/3 cup ketchup
  • 1/3 cup mayonnaise
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons bottled horseradish

Squeeze lemon juice into 4 qt water in a 6- to 8-quart pot, then stir in lemon quarters, Creole seasoning, 2 teaspoon cayenne, bay leaves, garlic, potatoes, and 2 tablespoons salt (omit salt if it is the first ingredient in seasoning).

Bring to a boil, then simmer, partially covered, until potatoes are almost tender, 10 to 12 minutes.

Increase heat to high, then add corn and simmer, partially covered, 4 minutes. Stir in shrimp and cook until just cooked through, 2 to 3 minutes.

Meanwhile, stir together ketchup, mayonnaise, horseradish, and remaining 1/2 teaspoon cayenne.

Drain shrimp, potatoes, and corn and serve with sauce.

A matter of the utmost importance.

In August, it’s important to get peaches into your mouth as often as humanly possible. You could eat, say, 6 or 7 out of hand daily. You could put a whole slew of them in a pie, a cobbler, or a crisp. You could shove them in a fruit salad. Anything will do really, as long as you get enough peaches in you to last throughout the winter. It’s a matter of the utmost importance.

So important, actually, that you may have to get creative. Sure, you could put peaches in a salad (actually I think August requires you to do so) but how about peaches for dinner? And no, not one of those I’m having dessert for dinner dinners – though that too sounds like a swell idea. How about you go balls to the wall, wild and crazy? Go peaches… with shrimp… and spicy peanuts… and bok choy.

It works, trust me, it works. It comes together into, well, the perfect balance. Spicy-hot peanuts are tempered (and highlighted) by the sweet peaches and the flesh of the shrimp. The bok choy lends that special crispness. And you can check off another serving on that peaches quota that I am sure you are all trying to fill. Right now, I’ve had about enough peaches to last until November. There’s a lot of work to do before the summer’s end.

Peaches and shrimp.

Peaches and Shrimp Stir-fry

serves 2-4

  • 1 pound shrimp, peeled and deviened
  • 2 tablespoons peach nectar (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce, or more to taste
  • small splash of rice vinegar
  • 6 heads bok choy, leaves separated
  • 3 peaches, cut into wedges
  • 3/4 cup spicy-hot peanuts
  • 1 bunch green onions, sliced

Place cleaned shrimp in a bowl. If using, add some peach nectar to the shrimp and let it marinate while you put together the other ingredients. When everything’s all chopped and ready, heat some oil in a wok until very hot. Throw in the shrimp, alongwith the soy sauce and vinegar. After a minute, add the bok choy and peaches. Cook, throwing the wok contents into the air and catching it all back in the wok if you have a lot of finesse and flair. Otherwise, stir with a wooden spoon. It’s okay if the peaches start to melt and break apart, they will act as a sauce like that. When shrimp seems cooked, add in the spicy-hot peanuts (you may substitute regular peanuts if you are a wimp) and cook for a minute longer.

Pour the wok contents into a serving bowl. Top with the green onions and more peanuts.

Ugly as a Monkfish’s Uncle

If monkfish can teach you one thing, it’s “don’t judge a book by it’s cover.” There are hardly any foods in the world that are this ugly:

But monkfish isn’t simply ugly, it’s also hands-down the best fish to use in a stew, assuming you can get over the look long enough to cook it. That was easy for me—I found it’s ugliness rather intriguing, actually, and the monkfish I had this weekend was fresh, clean, and about one day off the boat—caught from local fishermen and bought at the farmer’s market.

As soon as I saw the vendor was selling monkfish, I knew I had to make a fish stew. Snagging some mussels and clams, I moved on to the other stands and bought some of the most delicate, flavorfully-bitter arugula I’ve ever tasted.

I went straight to Anne Willan’s The Country Cooking of France cookbook (my favorite new book) once I got home, knowing it would have some great fish stew recipes. To my delight, one of the recipes is for Cotriade Bretonne, a fish stew with sorrel and leek. It calls for a rich fish (monkfish), a white fish (I had some hake in the fridge), and mussels. I could easily substitute the arugula for sorrel and why not throw some clams in there! A perfect combination.

The resulting soup was perfect in more than just the ease it took me to procure the ingredients—it was flavorful yet balanced, creamy yet light, with a hint of bitterness from the arugula. The mussels and clams were a fun addition for a Saturday night (we spent hours eating and plucking the meat from the shells, which were filled up with all the leeky, arugula goodness) but you could easily omit both bivalves and make this soup in no-time on a weeknight. I’ll certainly be doing so often.

Cotriade Bretonne

Fish Stew with Arugula and Leek

adapted from The Country Cooking of France, by Anne Willan

serves 6

  • 1/2 pound white fish, without skin
  • 1 pound rich fish, without skin
  • 1 1/2 pounds mussels
  • 1-2 dozen clams (optional)
  • 1 pound arugula (or sorrel), stems removed, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 3 leeks, white and green parts, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 quart fish stock
  • 1 pound potatoes, peeled, quartered, and thinly sliced
  • 1 bouquet garni
  • 3/4 cup creme fraiche
  • juice of 1/2 lemon

Wash and dry the fish, and cut into 2-inch pieces. Clean the mussels and clams and arugula. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the arugula, cover, and cook until the green wilt. Uncover and cook until all liquid had evaporated. Set aside.

Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a soup pot. Add onions, leeks, and garlic and cook until they soften, 8-10 minutes. Add the stock, potatoes, bouquet garni, salt and pepper and simmer until the potatoes are partially cooked, about 5 minutes.

Add the rich fish to the cooking liquid, immersing it in the liquid, and simmer for 2 minutes. Add the white fish and simmer until all fish are tender, 3 to 5 minutes. Discard bouquet garni. Add the arugula and creme fraiche, mixing gently. Top with mussels and clams (if using) and simmer until they open, 3 to 5 minutes.

Add lemon juice, salt, and pepper to taste. Serve with baguette toasts.

Grilled Tuna Tacos & Salsa Verde

Tacos are fun. They’re eat-while-standing-up food. They’re perfect-with-alcohol food…they’re party food.

I’ve always loved tacos—tacos (or spareribs) were my favorite dinner as a child, and they remain so to this day. I don’t, however, make tacos often. I’m not sure why, since they are easy as pie (much easier actually). I think it may be some deep-seated masochistic self-hatred—or maybe I just like to keep my favorite things special. Whatever the reason, it needs to stop.

Tacos should be eaten regularly. There’s so many different approaches to a taco that you could eat tacos everyday for months without getting bored (though you may put on a few pounds!). You have your pork, beef, or chicken tacos, your fish tacos, bean tacos—I’ve even heard of chocolate tacos. The possibilities of different cheeses, sauces, vegetables, and even fruit that can go into your tacos is endless. Then you can pick from soft tacos, or puffy tacos, or hard, crackly ones. There’s no reason that one shouldn’t have tons of tacos. The more tacos, the better, and the more people that you share them with, the merrier. Tacos are perfect party food—everyone loves them, and they leave the hostess free to party it up with her friends. There’s something wonderfully fun and inviting about setting out a bunch of bowls and accouterments for your guests and letting them put their plates together. It makes dinner a bit of a game.

But, I feel like I’ve become a bit of a Taco PR-girl, so I’ll end this post shortly—after recommending, of course, these tacos. They may be a bit more difficult than pie—since you make the salsa verde and the cabbage slaw from scratch—but they are absolutely worth the effort, making themselves my favorite tacos ever (and that’s an accomplishment!).

The salsa verde is bright, tangy and able to cut right through the creamy lime mayonnaise slaw. The onions, which I used to marinate the (very fresh) tuna and then used to top the grilled tuna tacos, are softened through the marinating—they retain a bit of onion-bite but aren’t offensive. If you’re unsure about eating onions that touched raw fish, reserve some of them for serving before you add to the raw tuna.

I suggest you taste the salsa verde before adding the sugar and the chicken broth—I found I didn’t need much sugar (I used 1/4 tsp) because my tomatillos were sweet, and I didn’t use as much chicken broth as the recipe called for (I used 1/2 cup) because I didn’t want to dilute the bold, punchy flavor.

Finally, I urge you to fry your tortillas. It’s a celebration, right? Screw your diet!

Grilled Fish Tacos

serves 4//from Bon Appetit May 08

  • 2 cups chopped white onion, divided
  • 3/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro, divided
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 5 tablespoons fresh lime juice, divided
  • 3 tablespoons fresh orange juice
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano (preferably Mexican)
  • 1 pound tilapia, striped bass, or sturgeon fillets*
  • Coarse kosher salt
  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • 1 tablespoon milk
  • Corn tortillas
  • 2 avocados, peeled, pitted, sliced
  • 1/2 small head of cabbage, cored, thinly slice
  • Salsa Verde
  • Lime wedges

Stir 1 cup onion, 1/4 cup cilantro, oil, 3 tablespoons lime juice, orange juice, garlic, and oregano in medium bowl**. Sprinkle fish with coarse salt and pepper. Spread half of onion mixture over bottom of 11x7x2-inch glass baking dish. Arrange fish atop onion mixture. Spoon remaining onion mixture over fish. Cover and chill 30 minutes. Turn fish; cover and chill 30 minutes longer. Whisk mayonnaise, milk, and remaining 2 tablespoons lime juice in small bowl.***

Brush grill grate with oil; prepare barbecue (medium-high heat). Grill fish with some marinade still clinging until just opaque in center, 3 to 5 minutes per side. Grill tortillas until slightly charred, about 10 seconds per side.

Coarsely chop fish; place on platter. Serve with lime mayonnaise, tortillas, remaining 1 cup chopped onion, remaining 1/2 cup cilantro, avocados, cabbage, Salsa Verde, and lime wedges.

*I used tuna steaks.

**I used all the onions, then marinated the fish and used the marinade for a topping afterwards. Come on, you eat sushi, right?

***Instead of serving the cabbage and lime mayonnaise separately, I combined them and served as a slaw.

Salsa Verde

3 unpeeled garlic cloves
1 pound fresh tomatillos, husked, rinsed
1 small onion, quartered through root end
3 to 6 serrano chiles or 2 to 4 jalapeño chiles
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 teaspoon (or more) sugar*
Coarse kosher salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup low-salt chicken broth**
2 tablespoons (or more) fresh lime juice
Prepare barbecue (medium-high heat).*** Thread garlic onto skewer. Grill garlic, tomatillos, onion quarters, and chiles until dark brown spots form on all sides, about 9 minutes for onion, 6 minutes for tomatillos and chiles, and 4 minutes for garlic. Cool. Peel garlic. Trim core from onion. Scrape some of burnt skin off chiles; stem. Seed chiles for milder salsa, if desired. Coarsely chop onion, chiles, and garlic. Transfer tomatillos and all vegetables to blender. Add cilantro and 1/2 teaspoon sugar; puree until smooth. Season to taste with coarse salt.

Heat oil in heavy large saucepan over high heat. Carefully add tomatillo mixture (juices may splatter). Stir until slightly thickened, stirring often, about 2 minutes. Add broth and 2 tablespoons lime juice. Bring to boil; reduce heat to medium and simmer until mixture measures 2 1/2 cups, about 10 minutes. Season to taste with salt and more sugar and lime juice, if desired. DO AHEAD: Can be made 1 day ahead. Cool slightly, then cover and chill.

*I used 1/4 tsp.

**I used 1/2 cup.

***I made everything (successfully I should think) on a cast-iron grill pan.

Hatteras Village Vacation

So. My vacation. As you can tell from my lack of posting this week, I’m still pretending to be on it. I’m a firm believer that no vacation should last for less than 2 weeks and if I can’t still be on vacation in reality, I’m on the beach in spirit.

The vacation was wonderful. We rented a little cabana with bright yellow walls and starfish decorations. The whole area was practically to ourselves as not many people are vacationing in North Carolina in March (it’s still pretty cold there.) The first few days were tumultuously windy. With vacationy-good-cheer, we made the best of it and took long walks on the beach anyway. The weather cleared within a few days. We took nature-walks through lush sea-side forests. Champ was unwillingly washed. And we ate a ton of tuna.

On the super-windy days, we checked out the local restaurants. I won’t say our eating over vacation was overall-tasty, or on-average-satisfying because, really, it was some of the best, and some of the worst, food that I’ve had in a long time. About the worst I won’t say much—just that when we first arrived at “our little fishing village on the tip of the Outer Banks,” I was surprised to see a lot of people very overweight and otherwise un-healthy-looking. Not that I have anything against portliness, not in the least, it’s just that this kind of portliness—it’s the McDonald’s variety, not the foie gras and creme brulee type—is unnerving. The latter is no less health-hazardous but I find it less sad. The more I learn about the dreaded farm bill, and corn subsidies, and evil corporation’s PR campaigns, the more disheartening it is to see obese people, many of whom work what I assume to be (and I know because I’ve worked many of these) underpaid jobs.

I’ve got to admit at first I was amazed. In an area where you could get the freshest fish I’ve ever tasted for cheaper than usual prices, how can the people living there be overweight? I had imagined they were all slinky gods and goddess, with sheeny hair and perfect skin. And then I ate at the restaurants. A lot of them were teeming with fast-food type fare, sometimes without the fast food prices! I realized how good I’ve been eating over the past year (how bad some people in this country have been)—and how little I’ve spent to eat my way.

Jim and I always complain about how much we spend on our fancy cheese and organic fruit at Whole Foods, but we spent about triple the amount of money on a week’s worth of food on vacation—and didn’t even eat out the whole time! And jesus, money aside, most of the food sucked. See, I’m all for spending 100 bucks on a dinner that I can savor and enjoy, but spending 50 on something that belongs in a school cafeteria (and if I had it my way, it wouldn’t even belong there) is a damn shame. I wanted to do something. I wanted to scream that it’s not that hard to cook! And a bag of beans and rice is so much cheaper than a Mikkey-Dee’s! And it will even fill you up better—not the filled up I feel sick feeling that results from eating twice your daily caloric intake in one meal!

Did I say I wouldn’t say much about the worst? Whoops. Well, at least I won’t name any bad-restaurant names publicly (if you really want to know, email me) and I’ll stop ranting now and move onto the good stuff.

I had a few firsts down in North Carolina—my first crawfish, my first (enjoyed) oyster, my first taste of alligator(!) We ate the alligator solely for the novelty of it. The pieces of alligator tail were tender but also a little rubbery—somewhere between the texture of fish and pork, oddly enough. The restaurant owner who offered the alligator gave a nice lesson of how alligators are farm-raised in Louisiana—in big indoor swamps, kept dark at all times, with the doors only opened when the (assumedly-scared-shitless) farmer needs to feed his stock. Can’t say I’m hankering to eat alligator again but the dish was indeed fun.

I tried crawfish and enjoyed its lobster-like flavor and meatiness—after, that is, I shamefully admitted to the bar girl that I had no idea what to do with the things, presenting her with the two specimens I thoroughly mangled before giving up. She graciously obliged, showing me how to start by pulling off the tail (mentioning that I could suck out the head if I wanted to be “authentic”) and then how to “shimmy” the meat out. After I finished 1/2 a pound—my hands stained red from the Old Bay and drawn butter glistening my lip—I proudly announced to her that I’d mastered the art of crawfish eating.

At this same friendly, delicious bar, I fell in love with oysters. I ate them the way, I realize now, they should always be eaten—unpretentiously, ordered at the bar by the dozen and served on a styrofoam plate with a few wedge of lemon and a bit of cocktail sauce. Little plump pillows, the oysters were transcendent. Briny, tasting of the shells they slept in. I’ve had oysters before, at fancy NYC restaurants paying an outrageous price per pop, but I enjoyed them ten-fold more in this small, dank North Carolina bar.

Finally, the tuna. Once the weather brightened, Jim and I didn’t want to do anything but be outside, and decided to start buying all our dinners at the local seafood market. We would show up at 5PM, as the boats were getting in, and spend some time on the docks watching the fishermen slice up their bounty, the pelicans chomping at the bit. Once inside, where though it was a small room full of fish, the only smell in our nostrils was that of the fresh, crisp, ocean. Nothing was fishy smelly. It was unlike any fish I’ve ever encountered and I knew we’d have to have tuna tartare.

It was fantastic. No, that’s not the right word. It was awe-some. It was hilariously, ridiculously good—we laughed the whole time we ate, unable to believe our plates. The only bad part was realizing that tuna tartare, my favorite dish to order at restaurants, would henceforth pale in comparison to the fresh, sea-scented tuna we had in the Outer Banks.

A Tuna Tartare Un-Recipe

This is an un-recipe because it’s really just a basic idea—something that you can go off of if you have no idea how to start upon tuna tartare. But really, it’s just a bouncing-off point, and you need to experiment and find the perfect taste for you.

  • 1 1/2 pound sashimi-grade tuna
  • 1 or 2 avocados, diced
  • 1 bunch scallions, sliced white parts only
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 cup soy sauce
  • 1-2 tablespoons sesame oil
  • 1-2 tablespoons sesame seeds
  • 1-2 teaspoons fresh ginger
  • 1-2 teaspoons wasabi paste
  • pinch of sugar
  • juice of a lime

Slice tuna into strips against the grain and cut into dices. Combine tuna with avocado and scallions. In a separate bowl, combine rest of ingredients, mixing well. Taste and adjust. Taste with a piece of the tuna and if it’s to your liking, pour over tuna. Mix and serve with sesame crackers.

Hearty Fish Soup with Cider, Leeks, and Mushrooms

I don’t know what I find so funny about fish heads but, well, I think most of the prep I did for this soup involved me holding the fish heads up in front of my face, giggling and pretending that they were speaking to me in funny voices. I was literally laughing out loud, alone in my kitchen with a fish head.

I don’t mean to sound unsympathetic to the poor fish that had to die for my soup. I really do respect him for that. I’m truly grateful. But unlike working with chicken heads or pig’s heads, which have an strikingly sad expressions, fish heads have this look on their faces, like they are half-surprised and half-tiffed that you are about to eat them. You wash them off, cut up your stock vegetables, and throw them all in the pot—and then the fish heads look up at you like “Seriously? You are seriously about to cook me?” You pour in the liquid and turn on the heat, and the heads look towards one another and say things like “Damn, man, this is it. Thought we’d fare better than our bodies, us heads being so cute and big eyed and all. But no, she’s going to actually frickin’ cook us.”

Continue reading “Hearty Fish Soup with Cider, Leeks, and Mushrooms”