Wednesday, September 28, 2011

"black bass" with "taylor bay scallops"

Yeah, with the quotes again. The actual recipe doesn't have the quotes.

Here's the thing: We get a lot of seafood around here. But we don't really get black bass. I mean, I'm sure I could figure out a way to get it. But why would I? There's fish that they pull out of the water around here. Why would I get something shipped from somewhere else. I picked black grouper. I looked at the description of black bass, and I was comfortable making that reach. Plus, black bass and black grouper are the same color, right? And sort of surprisingly, that color is white. At least with regards to the meat.


Now let's talk about the Taylor Bay scallops.

When I started this, I looked into what Taylor Bay scallops were. Taylor Bay is off the coast of New England. Again, I suspected I could get them, but we have a scallop season right here in Florida. Why not just get them here.

In fact, why not actually go get them here?

Scallop season in Florida is a summer thing, so I decided I'd make this dish when I could go get the scallops myself. It's a weekend warrior kind of thing. You don't have to be a trained diver to go get them, making me totally qualified.

So as the season was waning (I wanted to wait until the heat was down as much as possible), I booked a trip on a charter and headed out with Capt. Leo Riddle out of Homosassa Springs. That required waking up at 5:30 in the morning so I could drive 2 hours north before I'm normally awake, but what the heck.

So when I got there, I was anticipating getting a quick lesson on what it was I would need to do. But Capt. Leo just set out with me, Alan and our two new friends from Palm Beach, Crystal and Giorgio. Maybe when we got there, we'd be taught what we needed to do.

As we we're heading down the Homosassa River toward the Gulf, we spotted some dolphins. Six, we counted. More importantly, the dolphins spotted us and decided to escort us out to the bay. Here's what that looks like (Before pressing play, turn down the volume. You've been warned):

So we get to a spot in the gulf where we can still see land, but just barely. Now we'll get the lesson.

"All right, let's try it here," Capt. Leo said.

And thus ended the lesson.

I was given a mask and snorkel and asked if I wanted to use dive fins.

"Um, dunno. Do I?"

"Yes, you do," said Giorgio, who was in the water by now, wearing his own dive fins.

So I put them on and jumped in. Despite the fact that we were far enough away from land to barely be able to see it, the water was only 6-7 feet deep. I can't tell you how many times I've heard that, but I never believed it. It's true. I could almost stand in most of the water we were in.

Then I started getting acclimated and looking around. I saw nothing but grass.

"What am I looking for," I asked Capt. Leo, thinking there were secret signs I should watch for.

"Scallops," he said.

There is something to be said for not overcomplicating the issue.

I started floating around in the salty water -- it's really salty -- and getting used to breathing through the snorkel. I did this for 10 minutes or so, but saw nothing. Giorgio had found some at this point, but I had nothing.

But, I figured, hey, we saw the dolphins, I'm floating in the Gulf of Mexico, it's a nice day … I hope to get something, but if I don't, it was still a win.

I was rationalizing.

So I kept floating around thinking of reasons it wouldn't be a total disaster if I got nothing when it happened. I totally saw a scallop. All I had to do was go get it. So by now there was water in my mask. I surfaced to clear it, put it back on, went under and … Wait! Where did my scallop go?

Whether I drifted in the current or got turned around while surfacing or what, I have no idea, but there was no scallop anywhere. So I started floating again, this time going in circles (I think), until I finally saw it. I prepared to go down to get it, got to the point where my head was going deeper, reached out to grab it … and then I floated back to the top.


I re-spotted it, and tried again. No luck. I'm way too buoyant, I thought. There are probably applications in which that would be a great thing, but not this one. So I kicked and flailed and struggled and reached. Finally I got down and grabbed my first scallop.

I tried to be nonchalant, act like I'd been there before. I got it in the bag and started floating again, knowing if I got nothing else, I had a story now.

Then I found another one. It was the same story as the first, but eventually I got it. Then Capt. Leo decided we should try another spot, so I headed back to the boat. About halfway there, I realized something.

My bag was gone. With my scallops.


I looked around a little, completely defeated, knowing that in the unlikely event that I saw the bag, I'd probably never get it. So I looked, and cursed, and swam. Giorgio was behind me. "Did you lose your bag? I see one down there."


We went a little further up the coast. While we were on the boat, I mentioned how much trouble I had descending.

"Breathe out before you dive," Giorgio said. "I told you that before."

He had. I thought he meant it as if to say "relax." Turns out, he meant it as if to say "breathe out before you dive."

Now it all made sense.

We got to the new location, I jumped in the water, and with this new information, found that I could get down pretty well. It was still inelegant, I'm sure, but I could do it.

And I saw a scallop. I went and got it. Came up, got it in the bag. Went back down, saw another. Pretty soon I had a decent number. I felt a little sick from swallowing salt water, and was exhausted, so I got back on the boat. I counted my haul and had 21. Not bad. I really only needed 10 for the dish. I figured I'd go back in the water when I felt ready. But that never happened. I was zonked.

We got back to the dock, got them cleaned, because otherwise they look like this ...

And you want them to look like this ...

(The secret is a shop vac. Seriously.)

The other thing that I didn't do according to the recipe is I didn't use Hubbard squash. I bought seeds to grow them, but squash season doesn't coincide with scallop season here, so I got a butternut.

Sear the fish, steam the scallops, sauté the squash, and assemble a lemon brodetto, which is a combination of capon stock and preserved lemons that I made previously. That's the dish.

Of course, the dish is Black Grouper with Homosassa Bay Scallops. In Lemon Brodetto. 

Up next: riffing on lobster

Friday, September 23, 2011

peach crostata with honey gelato

I think my favorite things in this project are the dishes that are things that I never would have made before, but that I learn are pretty easy. And the weird thing is, that applies to all three elements of this dessert.

First there was the peach crostata. Admission: I used to never consider making pie dough. Never. Ever. Not once. It was something they sold in the supermarket. Kept in the freezer. Thawed it out. Fill it. Why would you go through the trouble of "making" it?

That it didn't really taste like anything? I guess that's just how it's supposed to be.

Do you have any idea how stupid easy pie crust is? It's like four ingredients, and you spin them in the food processor. Then you wait. Then you roll it out. Then you pat yourself on the back.

Do you have any idea how much better a pie crust you make is? And its not just the knowledge that you took $1.27 worth of ingredients and turned it into something. It's that you took $1.27 worth of ingredients and turned it into awesome.

So, here is the pie crust with the almond curd, the macerated peaches and the crumbly bits.

Here it is after I added the almond curd. That leaves the peaches and bits.

Here it is after I added the peaches. Pretty proud that I put them in there all nice and tidy and organized. That leaves the bits.
Here it is after I added the crumbly bits. 

 So, making the peaches all nice and tidy wasn't really the best use of time, it turns out. But I know how nice they looked before they were cloaked in bits.

The other things that I try to not do too much is a caramel sauce, because I always burn it, and honey ice cream because … well, I have no idea why. I make ice cream several times a year. I have always liked the idea of honey ice cream. Never made it.

Here, my caramel sauce was largely some sort of mistake. It was supposed to be honey butter. But I cooked it, and when I cook sugar, I mess things up. But not so much, because this still tasted great, though there was an issue we'll discuss in a minute.

And the honey gelato was outstanding. Sort of subtle, but it was distinct.

Here is the finished plate. Times 8.

The only issue was that the "honey butter" was only saucy when really warm. It started firming up really fast when not exposed to heat. But guess what it wasn't exposed to when it was laying all over some honey gelato. Heat. So it got a little chewy.

But come on. Look at that plate. It almost looks like I know what I'm doing. And it was so freaking good.

Up next: "black bass" and "taylor bay scallops" in lemon brodetto. (no quotes around the lemon brodetto. it's totally legit.)

Monday, September 19, 2011

baby chicken alla mattone

My pal Laura moved back to town after a year in Europe, and I wanted to make dinner for her on her return. So I looked through the book at various dishes I might make, and thought this would be a good one, because we had just been talking about spatchcocking a chicken, a procedure required for this dish. Sometimes that's the kind of thing we talk about.

But I talked myself out of it about four times, because when I did this dish, I wanted to make the panzanella with tomatoes I had grown myself. So I put together a list of 3-4 dishes and asked what sounded best to her, including this one, but with the aforementioned caveat.

"So, you don't want to make that dish … because you didn't grow the tomatoes?" she asked. Those were the words she said. But here was the subtext I heard: "Are you freaking serious? You're insane. Go buy some #*@! tomatoes."

So I went and bought some tomatoes.

It happened that I was doing this dinner the same week that I was procuring some  ingredients for a parallel but separate project from a real-life farm up in Brooksville (more on that in a future post), and I got the last-minute idea to see if I could find a farm at which to get actual baby chickens.

I did not. But at Whole Foods, the same place that I found the pre-grown tomatoes, I found these …

How's that for product placement. And Bell & Evans didn't even pay me to do that. Believe me, they really didn't. Quite the opposite.

Here is a more generic shot of the Cornish hens, which are for all intents just baby chickens …

There. That's less egregious. A little more fleshy, though.

The birds get spatchcocked, which sounds either sexy or painful or both, but is really just removing the backbone of the bird, which, under different circumstances, would probably be super painful. Then you push it flat. Which I really should have taken a photo of. You can sort of see what I mean in the photo at the top.

Then they go on the grill, and a foil-wrapped brick goes on top (alla mattone).

I had preheated the bricks on the grill. The birds are small and thin, so when they cook over high heat, with a hot brick on top, it doesn't take long before they're done.

There was just enough time to make the panzanella, which is a bread-based salad with tomatoes, cucumbers, herbs and dressing.

Laura made the bread, because she told me she had perfected the art during her time in Europe. 

A quick mix of all those ingredients and the salad is ready in no time. Lay a hen on top of the salad, garnish with lemons and go.

This dish had zero chance of failing. Grilled chicken is always going to be one of my favorites in any form, and the salad was terrific.

The best panzanella I've had was at Ad Hoc in Yountville, Calif. The tomatoes were like candy. But I was intent on putting together as good a panzanella as I could, and with that bread, I was really happy with how it came out. Ad Hoc's was still better, but then, Thomas Keller grows his own tomatoes, doesn't he.

Up next: Peach crostata with honey gelato

Monday, September 12, 2011

antipasto plate

For a dinner party, I decided to do an antipasto plate. I have these cool glass plates with four sections on them that I got from Crate and Barrel during an online clearance for 95 cents each, so I decided I'd knock out four of the antipasto from the book.

I ended up making five, and only two came from the book. It's a long story.

OK, here's the start of the long story. We have an avocado tree, and it has probably hundreds of pounds of avocado on it right now. So I decided I wanted to make something with them. But there is nothing in the book that uses avocado. Shrug. Minor problem.

I knew I was going to make cold avocado soup.

I made up my own recipe. It's avocado pureed with vegetable stock and heavy cream. Some salt and some lime juice. I couldn't believe how thick it stayed, so I added a little water, because I was afraid the vegetable stock was going to change the color. I wanted green. Then I made a little salad of crab, red onion and lime juice as a garnish. Done. 

Meanwhile, I took to Twitter and asked Mario what he would do if presented with a tree full of avocados.

Then this happened:

“@jwscoop: @Mariobatali hey chef, no avocado in babbo book. my tree is groaning. ideas?” I like a salad w grapefruit endive and avocado yum,

That sounds easy. I got some endive and grapefruit, added some mango because I picked one up at the office, then made a champagne vinaigrette. It ended up looking like this:

He's right. Yum.

The two I made from the Babbo cookbook were the beet and parmagiano bruschetta, which is pretty easy. Just roast and chop the beets, toss with balsamic and caraway, put on toast and shave cheese over it. I'm sure I could have found a way to make it sound difficult. OK, I had to go to a second store before I found caraway. But it was one on my way home from work, that I go to all the time. Not much drama. 

Then there was the cod in saor. I didn't know what to think of this dish. It sounds like a bad idea. Take fresh fish. Fry it. (That's not the questionable-sounding part.) Then make a mix of currants, pine nuts, onions and vinegar and soak the fried fish in there for 24 hours. Huh?

To be honest, when I was preparing for this dinner, I failed to see the "soak for 24 hours" step. By the time I started, I only had 8 hours. And I was OK with that, because I kept having to pull my eyebrow down, anyway. 

It was fantastic. One of the things I'd like to make again. I don't know what saor is, but the effect is basically pickled fried fish. Even though I have definitive evidence that it works, it still sounds like it shouldn't. But it does.

Also, one of the main ingredients, celery, originated in Oviedo, my homeland.

The last antipasto I made for the dinner was not from the book, but it was straight out of the Mario playbook. Just slices of mortadella, the fat- and pistachio-studded bologna that was illegal in the states until a few years ago (seriously), wrapped around slices of robiola, a soft, creamy cheese. For good measure, I put a dab of cherry-pepper jelly in mine. Then they get grilled.

This is a dish we had when Pam and I went to Fort Worth last year to work at an event for Mario's foundation. Here's a gratuitous photo of Mario and me eating this dish in Texas. 

It was great that day. But I liked it with the cherry pepper jelly, too.

Up next: baby chicken alla mattone

Sunday, September 4, 2011

barbequed octopus


Last time I needed to make octopus, I went to the store and asked for baby octopus, and they pointed me to the freezer where there was a grayish purple ball in a baggie and they told me there were like 20 of them in there. But there was one. Regular sized. I mean, I guess it was regular sized. I don't know how big an octopus regularly is. But it was no baby.

This time, I needed for there to be just one in the bag. So I told the clerk what happened last time, and she seemed stunned to the point that I sort of think she thought I was lying to her. Why I would choose the subject of how many octopi were in a frozen ball to be the thing that I started off with in my attempts to deceive her, I'm not sure. But that was the vibe.

So she tells me there are going to be like 20 in this bag, and they don't even sell bags with just one in there. "No one buys the big ones. People like the little ones."

OK, I thought. I'll take my chances.

Got home, thawed it out. And this is how many I found in the bag:

Just like I needed.

I even called the store and told her. I offered to e-mail a photo, but I don't think that would have helped. She was convinced that I had now bought the only two single-octopus bags ever to enter the store. Whatever. I got what I wanted this time. Last time, it was a problem.

So, this time the octopus gets baked for two hours. Last time it was boiled. Last time, I was surprised how much I liked it. This time, I remembered how much I liked it the last time.

It was ok. Not memorable. I liked the potato salad with the tangerine dressing that went with it. But if I make octopus again, it will be the bavette.

And I'll buy them pre-thawed, so I know I how many I'm getting.

Up next: an antipasto plate.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

maccheroni alla chittara

For such an easy dish, I went a long way for some of the ingredients.

Namely, I went to New York, and shopped at Eataly, which celebrated its first anniversary this week, and can open up a location around here any time it wants.

Namely, there were two things for this dish that weren't turning up anywhere in the greater Central Florida area, as best I could tell. Bottarga and the dish's namesake maccheroni alla chittara.

The bottarga is a little strip of tuna roe that's pressed and cured. You shave it like cheese over a dish, and it adds a little pescesalinity to a dish. Pescesalinity is a word I think I just made up, but that everyone should start using to mean "fishy saltiness." Pescesalinity sounds way better, right?

So the bottarga was easy to bring back to Florida on the plane. Just had to wrap it up tight. 

About the maccheroni …

It's a pasta. it is basically spaghetti-shaped. But while spaghetti is formed by forcing the dough through a metal die, for "alla chittara," a sheet of pasta is placed against a contraption with a bunch of evenly spaced strings (reminiscent of a guitar), and the pasta is pushed through the string, which cut it into the long strands. The story goes that pasta cut on a chitarra has a little more texture than that extruded through a brass die, and therefore holds the sauce better. Sounds reasonable.

I couldn't find it anywhere in Florida. I considered getting a chittara and making it myself, because I was confident I could. But I wasn't excited about buying another piece of equipment, especially one as big as a chitarra, so I kept looking. And i considered just making fresh spaghetti. But then when I was heading to New York, I knew I'd find it.

So it was one of the first things i looked for in the pasta department of Eataly. Let me clarify: the dried pasta department. Because there is also a fresh pasta department. And after much searching in the dried pasta department of Eataly, I found spaghetti alla chitarra. I decided that was close enough and threw a couple of bags in my basket.

Then I got to the fresh pasta department, and right up in the front of the case, there it was: maccheroni alla chitarra. I was instantly hit with a decision. They had it. The right pasta, with the right name. I could buy it with money. They would sell it to me. But I would have to figure out how to transport fresh pasta from the city to Newark, then Newark to Tampa, then Tampa to Clearwater. Without smashing it. Kept at temperature. I hated my chances. The dry, I just had to keep from breaking, which I thought was possible.

So, I spent more time than I care to admit staring at the fresh pasta case and weighing my options before I finally asked the woman behind the pasta counter, "What exactly is the difference between spaghetti alla chittara and maccheroni alla chitarra?"

And I braced for the answer.

"They're exactly the same thing."

Whew. That was the answer I wanted, and I thought there was a zero percent chance of getting it. I bought the dried.

After all that, the dish was pretty easy to make. Sure, I had to oven dry some tomatoes the day before I wanted to make the dish, but that's just good exercise. And sure, the habanero is really hot, but that's what makes it fun.

And dangerous

The pepper and some garlic gets cooked in some tomato sauce, then the pasta is tossed with the sauce and the tomatoes, and some bottarga is grated over. 

Wait! I forgot about the bread crumbs.

Mario often tops pastas with toasted bread crumbs, and I have to admit, I was skeptical. Seemed weird to me to put bread crumbs on top of pasta.

That's because I had never done it.

I took some leftover bread made by a friend, cubed it, toasted it, ground it to coarse crumb and toasted it again, expecting it to add little.

It was awesome. The textural change from the pasta to the crumb was so cool. Now I want to put bread crumbs on everything.

I'm not a big fan of big heat, and this dish was really spicy, but I loved it. Even though the heat was prevalent, it wasn't the only thing there. It tasted like pepper, not just like hot. And the tomato -- sauce and dried -- was sweet, offsetting the heat. Loved it. Want it again.

I didn't really taste the bottarga, and Pam said that it was too strong. Which was weird, because I grated more of it on mine than hers. And there was no plate mixup. Next time, I'll put even more on mine, and none on hers, and see if that solves both problems.

Oh, there will be a next time. In fact, there are more dried tomatoes in the fridge, and I heard that I'm getting some habanero from Velouria Farms.

Oh, and I found the recipe for this one online, too. And in it, it is suggested you could just substitute another pasta for the maccheroni. I guess assuming you won't fly to New York for it.
Up next: barbecued octopus