Monday, April 4th, 2016
The other day, I had the pleasure of informally interviewing my favorite fishmonger. His name is Mark Drabich and he owns (what I consider) one of the best seafood operations in the northeast—Metropolitan Seafood– located in the most unlikely of places, a rural county in northern New Jersey, off a sleepy commercial highway. It’s also only about 50 miles from New York City, which is where Mark travels every morning at some godforsaken hour to pick out fish at the wholesale seafood market at Hunts Point in the Bronx (aka, the new Fulton Fish Market), alongside fishmongers and chefs from all over the New York City-metro area, including famed establishments like Per Se and Le Bernardin.
The best thing about hanging with Mark is not just that he feeds you lunch made in his shop’s take-out kitchen (on this occasion it was two soft tacos stuffed to bursting with delicately fried rock shrimp dressed with a spicy mayonnaise and pickled red onion and jalapeños…there may have also been a chaser of lobster bisque…), but being privy to his very deep knowledge on the topic of selecting, buying, and preparing fish. The man is a fish guru, with a growly voice and a good dose of Jersey bluster. My hope was to glean information for those of you who are still skittish in the fish department. Perhaps because good fish is expensive and you just don’t want to mess it up. Perhaps because you ate “bad” fish once and you’ve kept your distance ever since. Or maybe you just make the same fish the same way over and over and so are in dire need of some new ideas. If any of these descriptions sounds familiar, then here are 3 of my favorite takeaways from my fish chat which addresses all of these concerns:
- “If you walk into a fish store or by a fish counter and it smells “fishy”, turn around and walk away.” Fish should NOT smell fishy, it should smell clean. Same with the establishment selling the fish. Worse, if you get a whiff of an ammoniated smell, that’s the smell of decomposing fish…so when in doubt, remember, “the nose doesn’t lie!” Find yourself another vendor, and in the meantime, maybe buy a nice organic whole chicken for dinner instead.
- Wild-caught, sustainable fish is the ideal. But this may not always be in your price point, or readily available. So Mark says that almost as good is organic fish that is hormone and antibiotic free. The person selling you the fish should provide this information openly, “people are afraid to ask, but ask!”. What you DON’T want, EVER, is fish processed in China or farm-raised in Southeast Asia, where practices are not well regulated and pollution is rampant. Even frozen fish can be preferable to fresh fish that is not coming from the best place (I have bought some solid frozen cod and salmon from Trader Joe’s; wild caught Gulf shrimp is also a good bet).
- “Have an open mind” says Mark. Salmon, tilapia, shrimp, yada yada…all fine and good and kinda boring. But why not take a stroll past the under-appreciated fish section, where you’ll find terrific value and taste. Mark recommends varieties like skate, whitings, porgies, and sardines. Most can be cooked simply: Season all over with salt and pepper, dust with flour, cook in a hot skillet skimmed with olive oil, flip and baste with butter and lemon juice, serve with chopped parsley and the pan-juices on top. I did exactly this after Mark convinced me on an earlier visit to buy some large, cleaned sardines he had gotten in (so these don’t resemble the ones you find in dusty can in the back of your aunt’s pantry, but the larger, fresh variety). I went home, made them exactly as described above, and they were complete HEAVEN. I’ve been a sardine convert ever since. I’ve also done the same with Spanish Mackerel, which has a wonderful flavor and now whenever I see it at the store, I have to buy it.
Thanks again to Mark for all the solid wisdom (side note: the salmon pictured above is a side of organic salmon I purchased at Metropolitan that I prepared KEEPERS style, roasted in the oven with slices of lemon on top and a flurry of herbs to finish it off. Check out the recipe for one of the simplest and most satisfying fish recipes you can make; and I highly recommend making an entire side (which will be about 3-4 pounds depending), which is wonderful as a dinner party dish, or because you can use the leftovers the next day for KEEPERS Expat Fried Rice (a major reader favorite), or just flaked and gently tossed into a bowl of soba noodles with ponzu sauce for a tasty lunch.
Thursday, March 3rd, 2016
When I opened my mail the other day, I was beyond excited to find, not yet another Land’s End catalog, but this new, beautiful cookbook from Chronicle Books:
If the artful stack of grilled cheese sandwiches oozing deliciousness doesn’t hook you, then the recipes will; which include not only recipes for classic and less traditional grilled cheese sandwiches (like open-faced tuna melts, avocado-grilled cheese on sourdough bread, Moroccan chicken pita grilled cheese, and a green egg and ham grilled cheese),but also soups, salads, pickles, and even a grilled cheese inspired macaroni and cheese recipe. Heaven, right?
The book was written by the husband and wife behind the book’s namesake restaurant in San Francisco (side note: people who live in San Francisco are just completely spoiled in the food department). They clearly have a gift for grilled cheese because they’ve apparently won a gazillion awards at the Grilled Cheese Invitational (yes, there is a contest for best grilled cheese…why have I not yet been invited?)
The lovely people at Chronicle have been kind enough to let me share one of my favorite recipes so far: Jalapeño Popper Grilled Cheese served with an Apricot-Jalapeño Relish. Jalapeño poppers are a guilty pleasure of mine (I can’t pass them up if I see them on a menu and I once made so many for a party that I had to sleep with my hands inside of two ice-cold washcloths because they burned for hours from handling all the peppers), and so this version satisfies everything that makes that dish irresistible–spicy, gooey, tangy, crunchy.
See below for the recipe and make sure you check out the book (it would make a terrific college graduation gift for the youngster who’s destined to subsist on melted cheese and bread for the next few years).
Jalapeño Popper Grilled Cheese
The Jalapeño Popper Grilled Cheese really should be called “The Scout.” One night while recipe testing, Nate and I fed our friend Scout—who was also the very first customer at our restaurant—a goat cheese and Jack grilled cheese. Scout’s response: “This is good, but can I put some jalapeños on it?” Thus it dawned on us that the jalapeño popper, that mainstay of sports bars everywhere, was a perfect candidate for grilled cheesification.
1½ tsp salted butter, room temperature
2 slices rustic artisan bread such as levain, sourdough, or white
1 Tbsp fresh chèvre (goat cheese), at room temperature
1 slice Monterey Jack cheese
¼ cup [55 g] Apricot-Jalapeño Relish
2 strips thick-sliced bacon, cooked until crisp and drained
1) Heat a cast-iron or nonstick skillet over medium-low heat.
2) Spread the butter on one side of each bread slice, dividing it evenly. Place both slices, buttered-side down, on a clean cutting board. Spread the chèvre on one slice and place the Jack on the other. Carefully spread the relish on top of the Jack and place the bacon on top of the relish. Finish with the second slice of bread, chèvre-side down.
3) Using a wide spatula, place the sandwich in the pan, cover, and cook until the bottom is nicely browned, about 3 minutes. Turn and cook until the second side is browned and the cheese is melted, about 3 minutes longer.
4) Cut the sandwich in half, if desired, and serve immediately.
Makes about 2½ cups[455 g]
Everyone loves this relish so much in our Jalapeño Popper Grilled Cheese and Breakfast Popper Grilled Cheese (page 25), we started selling it by the jar in our shops. The chunky texture and sweet-hot flavor is just right for burgers, roast pork loin, or grilled chicken. Make an easy canapé by topping crackers with a dollop of chèvre and a spoonful of relish. To make it extra spicy, add a finely chopped habanero chile to the mix.
4 medium jalapeño chiles, seeded and cut into ¼in [6mm] dice
2 small serrano chiles, seeded and cut into ¼in [6mm] dice
½ small white onion, cut into ¼in [6mm] dice
2 cups [240 g] dried apricots, cut into ¼in [6mm] dice
1½ Tbsp apple cider vinegar
1 Tbsp fresh lime juice
1 Tbsp peeled and grated fresh ginger, or 1 tsp ground ginger
2 tsp kosher salt
1½ tsp dry mustard powder
1) In a medium glass or plastic bowl, combine all the chiles, the onion, apricots, vinegar, lime juice, ginger, salt, and mustard powder and stir to mix thoroughly. Pack the relish into glass canning jars or plastic storage containers and cover tightly.
2) Refrigerate overnight to allow the flavors to blend before serving. Consume within 3 weeks.
Saturday, February 13th, 2016
A wave of arctic chill has begun to blow into the Northeast on this holiday weekend; but I don’t care, because it means I get to stay inside with the fam and the dogs, and make two of my favorite things: Chocolate Mousse (for Valentine’s Day tomorrow, I’m using the recipe from the Buvette cookbook) and Stromboli.
If you’re not familiar with the baked, cheesy delight that is the stromboli, it’s basically what happens when you take a pizza and roll it up. Or think of it as a first cousin to the calzone. Rather than folded, the fillings are layered and rolled into a savory strudel of sorts.
I’m still working on perfecting my stromboli—how to make it so that the fillings are even and fairly displaced, the crust stays crusty and tender (not mushy), the sauce is super-flavorful, and it doesn’t all turn into a hot mess while baking. But honestly, even when it is a hot mess, it’s pretty darn good. I urge you to try making one at home. All you need is a store-bought pizza dough (unless you’re a rock star and want to make your own), bring it to room temp, gently stretch it out on a floured surface until it’s approximately the size of a baking sheet, lay it on a parchment-lined baking sheet and shape it more or less into a rectangle, and then start layering. I recommend crushed tomatoes, grated pecorino, fresh mozzarella, salami, and basil. Roll it carefully, brush with an egg-wash, and bake for 20 minutes at 450 degrees.
Most important is to let it cool for a bit before cutting your first slice (the fillings need to set or they will all just ooze out). It actually tastes terrific at room temp (so also good for slicing and taking on the go if you insist on going outside to experience the thrill of subzero wind chill and frostbite).
Enjoy…and Happy Valentine’s Day!
Tuesday, February 2nd, 2016
Although the winter season is typically when food magazines trumpet the making and eating of stews, soups, roasts, and other hearty, bone-warming dishes; I find that it’s the time when I’m most craving salads. Maybe it’s the lack of direct sunlight, or the fact that I never was a huge fan of stews (this could have something to do with watching too many Dinty Moore commercials as a kid in the ’80s), but lately I’ve been making winter salads non-stop.
Now there is a difference between what I consider a “regular” salad, and a winter salad. Flexibility is key and so is a reliance different kinds of seasonal vegetables and ingredients. So summer delights like heirloom tomatoes are just not an option, and instead of using vegetables from my weekly CSA, most everything needs to come from the produce aisle at my local mega supermarket. This isn’t so bad, it can actually be quite good, especially if you’ve ever roasted some mushrooms, butternut squash, and beets, and eaten them over lettuce with a sprinkling of goat cheese and toasted sunflower seeds, along with a tart-sweet maple syrup-apple cider vinaigrette. Winter salads are more about texture, flavor-packed dressings, and add-ins that can elevate greens to meal status. Here are three of my favorites:
- The salad pictured above, a Kale Pomegranate Concoction, is one of my go-tos: Baby kale, lightly massaged with some salt and olive oil. Then topped with shaved cheddar (sue a vegetable peeler instead of a grater), avocado, toasted coconut and pumpkin seeds, pomegranate, and a simple vinaigrette of pomegranate juice-grapeseed oil-chopped shallots-maple syrup and salt and pepper. Crunchy, tangy, sweet, salty…the salad has everything going for it.
- Then there’s the always classic—Chicken Caesar Salad. For this, I use a version of the egg-free dressing used in the Frankie’s Spuntino Cookbook, substituting mayo for the eggs, and then whisking in a few splashes of worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, chopped anchovies, red wine vinegar, a minced clove of garlic, grated pecorino, and salt and pepper (if you’re using a blender to combine, adding a little bit of water is good too). Toss this with crisp romaine and add either grilled or pan-roasted chicken (or your supermarket rotisserie would do fine as well). Extra grated pecorino on top and I dare you to find a more satisfyingly simple salad.
- Lastly, I have become a little obsessed with adding citrus to my winter salads, specifically oranges (cara cara, navel, mandarin) and grapefruit (pink and ruby red). Citrus and Fennel go particularly well together, lots of sharp, bright, juicy flavors all together. The only real “trick” with using citrus in a salad is removing the wedges from their pith and skin. This is called supreming and although I was a little intimidated when I first learned how to do it, I now actually really enjoy the process (“So do ou want that tangerine cut into lovely juicy wedges? Then here, HERE, give it to me!!”). HERE’S A LINK to a little instructional video, just remember to do it over a bowl or mixing cup that can collect all the juices that fall so that you can use them in the dressing; also a good sharp knife nice is a must tool to have, it doesn’t have to be a big chef’s knife though. I do something of a composed salad, layering oranges and grapefruit, thin shavings of fennel (a Benriner, which is a Japanese mandolin, is the perfect tool for the job), with the fronds chopped to sprinkle on top, perhaps a little baby arugula as well, and then drizzling it all with a very herby dressing (packed with so many herbs, that it’s almost the consistency and color of a pesto but without the nuts/cheese/garlic), using handfuls of parsley and cilantro, and blending it some rice wine vinegar and grapeseed oil (or something fancy if I have it around like avocado or hazelnut oil), salt and pepper. Sweet, juicy, and refreshing, no matter what the temperature is outside.
Friday, December 11th, 2015
Perhaps you’re familiar with StoryCorps? It’s an organization that collects poignant narrations (tagline: “Every story matters”) recorded by everyday Americans and then archived in the Smithsonian. Stories of relationships, family, love, loss…all amazing Every Friday morning, NPR features one of these stories, spoken by the person who originally recorded it, and invariably I end up crying into my coffee mug. The story they shared today is no exception. It really is one of the most simply touching stories I’ve ever heard (with a food twist of course) and so lovely, that I had to share. It’s also a wonderful reminder of the power of kindness, understanding, and seeing the beauty all around us; particularly right now with all of the less-than-hopeful news. So please LISTEN HERE and enjoy.