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When skies turn dark and temperatures plunge, out come the short lists of dishes to warm body and soul. To those lists should be added an easy-to-make hot, savory, deliciously satisfying Moroccan-style chicken tagine.
Making a tagine sounds exotic, but at its heart, the dish is a one-pot braise, a technique as basic to an American kitchen as beef stew.
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Traveling with half a dozen food writers on a hosted trip to Morocco, at the trekking hotel, Kasbah du Toubkal, we were given a cooking demonstration by Hajjah Rkia ben Houari (“Hajjah” is an honorific given to a woman who has completed a pilgrimage to Mecca) and her assistant Fatima. In her kitchen with a view of the High Atlas Mountains, she showed us how to make classic Moroccan dishes: chicken tagine, preserved lemons and lamb couscous. She started the lesson by reminding us that having quality, fresh ingredients is essential.
The chickens, lamb, fresh vegetables and herbs came from the nearby open-air market in the Berber village of Asni. The spices were from vendors, much like the ones we saw in the Marrakesh and Fez souks with their finely ground spices organized in mounds next to bushels filled to overflowing with olives, dates, dried fruit, dried beans and herbs.
Home cooking in the High Atlas Mountains
In the pantry between Hajjah Rkia’s kitchen and the laundry room, sitting on short stools around a low table, we felt a bit like nursery school kids on a field trip. With our knees bumping against the table, we were her prep chefs. She assigned tasks — peeling onions, garlic, carrots and potatoes — and the translator explained how we would cook the dish according to our host’s Berber traditions.
At the end of the cooking demonstration, Hajjah Rkia’s son made Moroccan-style mint tea, which meant the teapot was held high in the air as a hot stream of black tea flavored with fresh mint was poured into small glass cups. He explained the long stream aerated the tea and gave it added flavor qualities. Without the benefit of a test kitchen, we couldn’t validate that opinion, but we loved the spectacle and the tea was delicious.
Just before we sat down for dinner, Fatima cooked flat bread on an outdoor clay stove fueled by wood and charcoal. Charred on the outside, the bread was chewy on the inside. To stimulate our appetites, Fatima’s handmade bread arrived at the table warm from the fire with a plate of fresh feta cheese and a bowl of spicy Moroccan olives. Then the table was set with large platters of the dishes made during the cooking demonstration. What a feast.
Translating Moroccan classics in an American kitchen
Back in my own kitchen, facing an inclement day when friends were coming over for dinner, I remembered that wonderful meal at Hajjah Rkia’s. The chicken tagine appealed to me as the perfect way to beat back the cold. I adapted the recipe to my own palate and the realities of a Southern California kitchen.
In Morocco the pot used to prepare a tagine is a shallow pan with a distinctive conical top. Lacking a tagine, I find the qualities of the dish can be approximated using a covered pot that has a vented lid to promote the thickening of the sauce through evaporation. I use an inexpensive Chinese clay pot, which works well.
Before using a clay or ceramic pot, always check the manufacturer’s instructions. Some pots should be soaked in cold water before using. For some pots, a diffuser must be placed between the pot and the heat source to prevent cracking.
Chicken With Preserved Lemons, Cracked Olives and Golden Raisins
Preserved lemons give the dish a bright, citrus finish. Easy to make at home, preserved lemons will keep refrigerated for months. The lemons can be used after one week, although the longer they have been preserved, the more they will have their distinctive “perfume” flavor.
As a side dish, Moroccan pickled vegetables provide a tangy complement to the savory tagine. The pickles are fun to make and, like the lemons, will keep refrigerated for months.
This recipe calls for cracked olives, which are olives that have been “cracked” sometimes by hand, sometimes by machine to create a deep cut in one side of the olive reaching to the pit. That allows the brine to reach deep into the olive. In cracked olives, the pits are mostly separated from the “meat” because of the cracking. The advantage of cracked olives in a braised dish is the sauce soaks deeply into the olives and the saltiness of the olive passes into the sauce so the effect is different from using regular olives.
1 whole chicken, 3 to 4 pounds, washed
¼ cup kosher salt
¼ cup golden raisins
1 tablespoon ground black pepper, divided
3 tablespoons lemon juice
4 garlic cloves, peeled
⅓ bunch fresh cilantro, stems and leaves
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium red or yellow onion, peeled, finely chopped
1 teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon of powdered saffron (optional)
⅛ teaspoon cayenne powder (optional)
2 cups chicken stock (preferably homemade)
1 preserved lemon, rinsed, white pith removed, finely chopped
1 cup cracked green olives
Sea salt and black pepper to taste
⅛ teaspoon cayenne powder (optional)
1. Place the whole chicken in a large container, cover with water. Add the kosher salt. Refrigerate overnight.
2. Place the golden raisins, ¼ teaspoon of the black pepper and lemon juice into a covered container. Allow the raisins to absorb the juice for at least one hour or overnight.
3. Before cooking, rinse the chicken and pat dry. Using a sharp knife, remove the breast meat, legs, thighs and wings from the carcass. Cut apart the wings at the joints. Debone the thighs and legs, taking off the skin.
4. Place the carcass, skin and wing tips into a large pot, cover with water and simmer 60 minutes. Strain the bones. Reserve the stock. The meat on the bones can be picked off and used in a salad or a soup. Refrigerate the chicken stock. When cooled, remove the fat and discard.
5. Finely chop the garlic and cilantro.
6. Cut each chicken breast into four, equal sized pieces. Cut the deboned thighs into four and the legs into two pieces.
7. Over a medium flame, heat the olive oil in a tagine or pot. Add the onions, ground ginger, saffron (optional), garlic and cilantro. For additional heat, dust with cayenne powder (optional). Stir well and cook for two to three minutes.
8. Sauté the wings, thighs and legs in the seasoned oil until lightly browned. Do not add the chicken breasts, which require less cooking time.
9. Finely chop the raisins, which have now absorbed the pepper-flavored lemon juice.
10. Add raisins, remaining black pepper-lemon juice and chicken stock. Stir well to create the sauce. Cover and gently simmer 30 to 40 minutes or until the chicken meat is tender.
11. Add chicken breast pieces, cracked green olives and finely chopped preserved lemon peel.
12. Cover and simmer 20 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning with sea salt or ground pepper. Serve hot with steamed rice as a side dish.
- Do not debone the breast, thigh and legs. Traditionally, the chicken is quartered and the wings are kept whole.
- Along with the onions, add other vegetables of your choice such as leeks, peeled potatoes, carrots, cauliflower and turnips, cut into bite-sized pieces.
- For added sweetness, dissolve 1 tablespoon honey in the chicken stock.
- Before adding the vegetables, lightly drizzle them with olive oil and roast for 15 minutes in a 350 degree F oven on a parchment-paper-lined baking tray.
- Serve with steamed spinach instead of rice.
- Serve with boiled or mashed potatoes instead of rice.
Top photo: The distinctive Moroccan ceramic tagine. Credit: David Latt
Place a carbon steel pan on a stovetop burner on high heat and stand back. In minutes, the surface temperature will reach 600 to 700 F. When hazy smoke floats into the air, it’s time to drizzle a small amount of oil onto the pan. The oil scatters across the surface, looking for a place to hide from the heat. But there’s no escape. The oil accepts its fate, adds a bit more smoke and waits. Drop a piece of marbled meat or a beautiful medley of farm fresh vegetables into the pan and the sizzling begins. Smokin’ carbon steel is the alchemist’s apprentice, transforming fat and starch into savory sweetness.
To create beautifully charred meats and crispy skin fish filets, restaurant chefs use sauté pans designed to take high heat. Searing caramelizes the outside and locks in flavor. In the home kitchen, cast iron and stainless steel pans are favored by many, but carbon steel has advantages over both. No health issues are associated with using carbon at high heat and cleanup is easy. Like woks, once a carbon steel pan is seasoned, the surface turns black so there is no need to brandish a scouring pad and cleanser.
Working with carbon steel
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Some additional care needs to be taken. Never soak a carbon steel pan in water or place in a dishwasher. Simply scrub with a little soap to remove particulates and grease, rinse, then heat the pan on a stove top burner until dry and the pan is ready to use again. Acidic ingredients such as lemon juice and tomatoes can affect the seasoning of the pan, but that is easily remedied by following the manufacturer’s directions.
Available in cooking supply stores, the pans are half the cost of stainless steel and twice the price of cast iron. Once seasoned according to the manufacturer’s directions, the pans are virtually indestructible and designed to last a lifetime.
The pan I use is a French-made de Buyer 12.6-inch Mineral B Element. A bit lighter than a comparably sized cast iron pan, the extra long handle never gets hot when used on the stove top. At high heat, the surface of the carbon steel pan becomes nonstick with the smallest amount of oil.
Very much like Chinese stir-frying, cooking at high heat requires all ingredients to be prepped before cooking begins. To avoid risking a burn, experts suggest using a pair of long metal tongs, 12 inches or longer to manipulate the ingredients in the pan.
Get ready for some serious heat
A good exhaust hood with a fan above the stove is also necessary. High heat’s sweet smoke can turn from pleasure to pain if unvented. Many a meal has been spoiled by the annoying screech of a smoke alarm.
Use an oil that can tolerate high temperatures. A proponent of high-heat cooking to prepare his signature crispy salmon filet, chef Taylor Boudreaux of Napa Valley Grille in West Los Angeles, Calif., recommends a blend of canola (80%) and olive oil (20%).
Keep a premixed bottle on hand in the kitchen and you’ll always be ready for a smokin’ good time.
Pan Seared Bone-In Ribeye Steak
I believe a little bit of steak goes a long way, so my preferred portion is 6 to 8 ounces. Quality rather than quantity makes the difference in this supremely easy-to-make, protein-centric dish. Buy the highest quality steak available.
A good steak deserves good accompaniments that are entirely personal in nature. One person draws pleasure from a side of fries, another prefers a baked sweet potato with butter. Some diners wouldn’t eat red meat without a glass of red wine. I enjoy a charred steak with caramelized onions and shiitake mushrooms served alongside garlic-parsley mashed potatoes, a carrot-broccoli sauté and an ice-cold perfect Manhattan up with a twist. But that’s me.
The times indicated in the recipe are estimates. The thickness of the steak will affect how long the meat needs to be cooked to reach the desired level of doneness.
1 bone-in ribeye, T-bone or Porterhouse steak
Sea salt and ground black pepper to taste
½ teaspoon blend of canola oil (80%) and olive oil (20%)
1 teaspoon sweet butter (optional, see variations)
1 garlic clove, peeled, root end trimmed (optional, see variations)
½ teaspoon finely chopped chives, or the green part of a scallion (optional, see variations)
1. Wash and pat dry the steak. Season lightly with sea salt and black pepper. Set aside.
3. Place the carbon steel pan on a burner on a high flame.
4. When the pan lightly smokes, drizzle the oil into the pan. In seconds the oil will smoke.
5. Using tongs, place the steak in the pan. Press down gently along the edges and the meat next to the bone. Pressing too firmly will force juices out of the steak which would diminish the flavors.
6. Allow to cook and sizzle. Steaks are best served medium-rare. Make adjustments as to time if you prefer yours less or more cooked.
7. After 3 to 5 minutes, turn the steak over. After another 3 to 5 minutes, press against the middle of the steak. If the meat feels solid, it is cooked. If it can be pressed down easily, then it probably requires more cooking. To be certain, use a sharp paring knife to make small cut in the middle of the steak. Inspect and determine if the steak has cooked to the state of doneness you enjoy.
8. Serve hot with your preferred sides and beverage of choice.
1. Use a combination of stovetop searing and oven baking, as many restaurant chefs do. To do this, sear the steak for 2 minutes on each side, then place in a 400 F oven for 5 minutes. To remove the pan from the oven, remember to use an oven mitt. The handle that rarely gets hot on the stove top will be very hot after spending time in the oven.
2. Test for doneness as before. If not cooked to your preference, place back in the oven.
3. After removal from the oven or the stovetop, drop a teaspoon of sweet butter and a crushed garlic clove (peeled) into the pan. Spoon the butter-garlic mixture over the steak, bathing it in the sauce. Discard the melted butter and garlic before serving. Place the steak on the plate with the sides.
4. Sprinkle 1 teaspoon finely chopped chives or the green part of a scallion over the steak just before serving.
Caramelized Farmers Market Vegetables
Perfect as a side dish or as an entrée with noodles or rice, the vegetables should be charred but not overcooked so their texture is al dente. Using the freshest, highest quality vegetables will create a better tasting dish. Butter is optional, but a small amount can add a level of umami that turns a good plate of vegetables into an outstanding one.
2 large carrots, washed, root and stem ends removed, peeled, cut into rounds or 1 -nch oblongs
1 medium onion, washed, root and stem ends removed, peeled, julienned
3 garlic cloves, skins and root ends removed, smashed, finely diced
2 cups broccoli florets, washed, sliced long ways into bite-sized pieces
2 cups Brussels sprouts, root ends trimmed, cut into quarters or julienned
1 cup shiitake or brown mushrooms, washed, stem ends trimmed, thin sliced long ways
1 teaspoon blend of canola oil (80%) and olive oil (20%)
Sea salt and ground black pepper to taste
1 teaspoon sweet butter (optional)
Pinch of cayenne (optional)
1. Assemble all the vegetables on the cutting board, ready to use. If serving with steamed rice or cooked pasta, have that prepared as well.
2. Set the burner on the highest setting. Place the carbon steel pan on the burner. Allow to heat until a small amount of smoke begins to form.
3. Drizzle in the blended oil. When it smokes, add all the vegetables.
4. Using the tongs, toss the vegetables frequently to prevent burning. Toss for 3 to 5 minutes or until the vegetables are cooked al dente.
5. Remove the pan from the burner. Because the carbon steel is still very hot, continue tossing the vegetables. Add the butter and cayenne (optional). Toss well. Taste and adjust seasoning with additional sea salt and pepper.
6. Serve hot as a side dish or with the pasta or rice.
– If caramelized onions are preferred, cook them separately until they take on a golden color, then add the other vegetables.
– Substitute or add vegetables you enjoy, such as zucchini, turnips, kale or kohlrabi. Since some vegetables cook more quickly than others, learn which ones need to go into the pan ahead of the others. For instance, small diced turnips and kohlrabi would go in first before adding the other vegetables.
– Instead of adding butter and cayenne (optional), add 2 tablespoons soy sauce or an Asian sauce (optional), and for added heat, add 3 tablespoons finely chopped Korean kimchi (optional).
Top photo: Carbon steel sauté pan on high heat, smoke rising from the blended oil. Credit: David Latt
One of the delights of eating in a restaurant is enjoying a dish that seems difficult to create at home. Getting crispy skin on a salmon filet is right up there with making flaky pie crust or mastering an airy dessert soufflé that can survive the transfer from oven to table.
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Helping bring one of those dishes to the home kitchen, executive chef Taylor Boudreaux reveals a restaurant chef’s easy-to-follow technique to create crispy skin on a salmon filet in his kitchen at the Napa Valley Grille in West Los Angeles.
Boudreaux prefers quality ingredients sourced from sustainable purveyors. He also adheres to the “less is more” approach, which he demonstrates with his preparation of Coho salmon. Easy to prepare, the dish is elegant enough to be the centerpiece of a romantic dinner for two, a dinner for friends for New Year’s Eve or any celebration.
Children of military parents often lament having to move frequently, leaving behind friends and schools. Yet, there are those rare individuals for whom the glass-half-full becomes a golden opportunity. Because his dad was assigned to military bases around the country, Boudreaux was able to explore different parts of the United States. Regional food became his passion.
Preferring a country style of cooking instead of the rarefied gastronomic alchemy favored by many fine-dining chefs, Boudreaux likes to feature a few elements, presented as close to their original state as possible.
Leaving the chanterelles whole lends a rustic flair to the plate. Parsnips give up their native texture to become a creamy foundation for the filet of moist salmon with its contrasting crisp skin.
Some chefs use deep-frying to turn fish skin into crispy deliciousness. Boudreaux says a healthier way is to employ a sauté pan.
Pan-Seared Coho Salmon With Field Foraged Mushrooms and Parsnip Purée
The recipe is portioned for one. Multiply the ingredients by the number of servings. Depending on the size of the sauté pan, two to four filets can be cooked at the same time.
In addition to quality ingredients, Boudreaux stresses the importance of using a pan that can accept high heat. Because high heat is essential to creating crisp skin, chef uses a 20/80 mix of olive and canola oil. Canola oil can tolerate the high heat. Olive oil adds flavor to the sauté. Do not allow the hot oils to catch fire. The flames may be entertaining but they add an unpleasant flavor.
Instead of parsnips, Boudreaux sometimes uses potatoes or turnips, using the same ingredient portions and technique.
1 cup parsnips, washed, peeled, roughly chopped
1 cup heavy cream
1. Place the chopped parsnips in a saucepan and cover with heavy cream.
2. Simmer till fork tender.
3. Place parsnip in blender and purée till smooth.
4. Add more cream, if necessary, to adjust consistency.
5. Pass through fine mesh and season with salt.
6. Return to a small saucepan. Reheat when the filet has come out of the oven and is ready for plating.
Extra virgin olive oil
2 ounces chanterelle mushrooms, washed, pat dried
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon butter
1 sprig thyme
1 clove garlic, washed, peeled, crushed by hand
1. In a hot sauté pan add 2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil and sauté mushrooms on high heat.
2. When just caramelized, season with salt and pepper and add 1 tablespoon butter, sprig thyme and 1 fresh garlic clove.
3. Remove from heat and let butter brown, being careful not to burn the butter.
4. Discard thyme and garlic.
5. Set the mushroom dish aside. Reheat just before plating the fish.
2 ounces white wine
1 shallot, washed, peeled, fine chopped
1 thyme sprig, washed, pat dried
4 to 6 black peppercorns, whole
1 garlic clove, washed, peeled, fine chopped
4 tablespoons sweet butter
1 half lemon, seeds removed
Sea salt to taste
1. In a saucepan, reduce by two-thirds 2 ounces of white wine. Add chopped shallots, garlic, thyme sprig, and peppercorns and simmer.
2. Whisk in 4 tablespoons butter to emulsify.
3. Season with sea salt and pepper.
4. Taste and add acid with a squeeze of fresh lemon.
5. Remove peppercorns
1 skin-on filet of salmon (6 ounce), washed, pat dry
1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
4 teaspoons canola oil
2 tablespoons sweet butter
Sea salt and pepper to taste
1 garlic clove, washed, peeled, crushed by hand
1 sprig thyme, washed, pat dried
1 tablespoon microgreens, washed and patted dried or Italian parsley, washed and finely chopped
1. Place the filet flesh side down on a cutting board. Using a sharp paring knife, in the middle of the filet, make a 4-inch incision in the skin (not the flesh).
2. Heat sauté pan until smoking.
3. Add blended olive oil and canola oil to coat pan.
4. Lightly sprinkle sea salt and freshly ground pepper on both sides of the filet.
5. When oil smokes, lay seasoned fish skin side down. Because the heat will cause the salmon to curl up on the ends, use the fish spatula to lightly press down on the filet.
6. Cook till skin is golden brown, about 2-3 minutes. When the skin has crisped, it will be easy to lift from the pan.
7. Using a fish spatula, turn filet over so flesh side is down. Place in a preheated 350 F oven 6 to 8 minutes or until a temperature thermometer reads 125 F for medium rare.
8. Remove from oven and place pan on burner.
9. On medium heat add 1 tablespoon butter, a crushed garlic clove and thyme sprig.
Using a soup spoon, baste filet with butter as butter browns. Do not over brown butter.
10. Remove from pan to plate.
Directions for plating
1. Using the back of a soup spoon, spread the parsnip purée on the bottom of the plate.
2. Place the salmon filet on the purée in the middle of the plate, crispy skin side up.
3. Scatter the chanterelles along the sides of the filet.
4. Drizzle the beurre blanc on the plate and over the filet.
5. Decorate the top of the filet with microgreens or Italian parsley.
6. Serve hot with a dry white or sparking wine.
Watch Chef Boudreaux demonstrate the dish here:
Coho salmon filet with crispy skin on a bed of parsnip purée with chanterelle mushrooms with a beurre blanc sauce in chef Taylor Boudreaux’s kitchen at the Napa Valley Grille. Credit: David Latt
Even the most jaded of adults will stand outside the plate glass window of a chocolate shop and stare at the candies inside with the wide-eyed wonder of a child. On a recent trip researching a series of articles about Switzerland, I spent time with chocolatier Dan Durig who has two shops in Lausanne on Lake Geneva.
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To celebrate the holidays and the New Year, Durig generously shared an easy-to-make chocolate ganache. He also patiently allowed me to videotape him preparing his signature vanilla-scented ganache-filled chocolates.
Born into a family of Swiss chocolate makers, Durig learned the craft from his dad, Jean Durig. Growing up near Manchester, England, and vacationing with his father’s family in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, Durig lived comfortably in England and Switzerland. So when he was ready for a life change, relocating to Switzerland was easy to do.
Having always worked for his dad or other chocolatiers, he wanted to start his own business in Lausanne. In a quiet neighborhood within sight of Lake Geneva, Durig converted a branch office of BCV bank into Durig Chocolatier.
Locals told Durig the transformation of a bank into a chocolate shop changed the neighborhood for the better. The change was good for Durig as well. Within three years, his business was well established, he won several prestigious awards, he married and had a son. Putting together a team to work in the kitchen and in the front of the shop is, according to Durig, easier in Switzerland than other places because of the country’s well-established apprenticeship program. The clerks who work in the shop go through a retail management program. The chocolatiers learn their craft in a multiyear pastry apprenticeship based on the French model, combining four days of work with one day of school.
Made mostly by hand with the help of a few machines, Durig happily demonstrated how he crafts his chocolates. As he worked, two tempering machines that work 24 hours a day can be heard in the background, keeping separate batches of milk and dark chocolate at precisely the correct temperature. When melted without controlling the temperature, chocolate will cool and harden without its characteristic bright sheen and crispness.
Durig knows his chocolates are only as good as the ingredients he uses. To make his ganache, he sources high quality Swiss organic cream from local dairies and vanilla beans from Madagascar. He buys his cocoa and cocoa butter from quality, fair trade producers in Peru, Sierra Leone and Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic.
For best results at home, follow Durig’s lead and buy the highest quality chocolate and cream available. Chocolate should be made only with cocoa butter. Cream should not have any chemical additives.
To make the ganache-filled chocolates demonstrated by chef Durig in the video, purchase a candy-making mold in a restaurant or cooking supply store or online. Learning to temper chocolate is not for the faint of heart. Understanding that, Durig’s ganache recipe does not require tempering.
Durig Chocolatier’s Chocolate Holiday Ganache Squares
Using quality ingredients is essential in cooking, especially when making chocolates. After making the ganache, the chocolates should be stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container.
If served cold, the chocolates have a pleasing crispness. Allowed to warm to room temperature, they will have a melt-in-your-mouth deliciousness. I put the chocolates in individual paper cups for easy serving.
As a matter of taste, I added caramelized nuts to the ganache. A half cup of almond slivers tossed with 1 tablespoon of white sugar and toasted over a low flame added a pleasing crunch to the citrus and herbal notes.
Serves 24 to 36 (about 130 pieces, depending on the size of the squares)
For the mixed spice:
Durig buys his mixed spice ready made. Making your own is easy enough. Once prepared, keep in an airtight container. If ground clove and fennel are not available, grind your own.
1¼ teaspoons ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground fennel
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground clove
For the chocolates:
500 grams (1 pint) cream
800 grams (28 ounces) organic dark chocolate (68% cocoa content), chopped into small pieces
10 grams (2 flat teaspoons) ground cinnamon
10 grams (2 flat teaspoons) mixed spice (see directions below)
100 grams (3 ounces) chopped organic candied orange peel
Organic cocoa powder for dusting
For the mixed spice:
1. Place all the ingredients into a small, electric grinder and pulverize into a fine powder.
For the chocolates:
1. Bring the cream to boil and remove from the heat.
2. Add the other ingredients to the cream and stir with a wire whisk until the chocolate is melted.
3. Pour into a 10-inch dish lined with baking paper.
4. Cool in the fridge for 4 hours.
5. Cut into ½- to ¾-inch squares and roll each square in the cocoa powder.
6. Set aside on a wire rack or sheets of waxed paper.
7. Keep refrigerated in an airtight container until ready to serve.
Top photo: Ganache-filled chocolates at Durig Chocolatier in Lausanne, Switzerland. Credit: David Latt
Start a meal with an amuse-bouche, and you’ve gone from zero to 60 in five seconds. Fine dining chefs learned long ago that an amuse-bouche gives a preview to the meal with a palate-pleasing morsel. At home, an amuse-bouche turns an everyday meal into fun.
Strictly speaking, an amuse-bouche is an amusement for the mouth, usually a single bite or small plate served at the start of the meal in an upscale restaurant. The dish is not on the menu, is free of charge and spotlights the chef’s culinary interests.
From Michelin-star kitchens to home kitchens
Doing research for a series of articles about five-star hotels in Switzerland, I was hosted in a dozen upscale restaurants in Geneva, Lausanne, Vevey, Interlaken, Zurich and Lugano. Without exception, every meal was preceded with an amuse-bouche, and they were as different as the chefs who commanded those kitchens.
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Some amuse-bouche featured expensive ingredients such as caviar, lobster and foie gras. Others employed labor-intensive techniques that transformed solids into airy foams. All were small plates of luxuriousness and indulgence, like the lemon-scented carrot gelée flavoring a disk of veal tartare at Restaurant Le Mont Blanc at Le Crans, a ski resort in Crans-Montana not far from Geneva.
At the three-star Michelin restaurant in the Beau-Rivage Palace in Lausanne, the amuse-bouche prepared by Anne-Sophie Pic’s kitchen was a single plate with three disks of flavor, texture and temperature, employing ingredients as disparate as avocado, ham, figs, Parmesan cheese, shrimp, tomato and mozzarella.
Get inventive with small bites
In the home kitchen, an amuse-bouche can be as inventive and flavorful as any from a Michelin-starred restaurant, but it need not be as labor intensive. An espresso cup with a fragrant soup of roasted tomatoes and spinach with homemade croutons on the side is a great way to begin a meal but does not require the crew of prep chefs necessary in a fine-dining kitchen.
The best amuse-bouche are packed with flavor. The point is not to satiate hunger but to stimulate the appetite. Think of an amuse-bouche as a gateway to the meal. A single grilled scallop seasoned with finely grated Parmesan cheese. A shucked oyster topped with a few salmon eggs. A cube of roasted kabocha squash flavored with caramelized onions and shiitake mushrooms.
For a Vietnamese-themed dinner, I served an easy-to-prepare grilled shrimp with lemon grass to tell everyone the meal was taking its inspiration from Southeast Asia.
Lemon Grass Grilled Shrimp With Garlic and Onions
1 stalk lemon grass, washed, root end trimmed
4 medium sized raw shrimp, washed, shelled, deveined, pat dried
1 garlic clove, washed, peeled, finely chopped
1 teaspoon finely chopped yellow onion
⅛ teaspoon turmeric
Sea salt to taste
Black pepper to taste
1 teaspoon olive or sunflower oil
1 teaspoon fish sauce, Nam Pla or Nước chấm (optional)
Dusting of cayenne powder (optional)
1. Scrape the white end of the lemon grass stalk against a fine grater. Use the first 2 to 3 inches of the stalk and discard the remainder.
2. In a bowl, toss the shrimp, grated lemon grass, garlic, onions, turmeric, salt, pepper, oil, fish sauce (optional) and cayenne (optional).
3. Preheat an outdoor grill to high or the oven to 400 F. If using an oven, place a small wire grill on a piece of aluminum foil on the bottom of a small baking tray.
4. Skewer the shrimp using two skewers to the shrimp to keep their shape.
5. Place the shrimp on the outdoor grill or in the oven.
Turn over after three minutes. Remove when shrimp have grill marks but are not overcooked.
6. Serve each shrimp on a small plate with garnish.
Top photo: An amuse-bouche from Chef Dominique Gauthier of Le Chat Botté at the Beau Rivage in Geneva, Switzerland. Credit: David Latt
With the outdoor barbecue mothballed for the season, cooks might think the joy of food caramelized by intense heat has to wait until summer. But maybe not. A chance discovery in a Korean restaurant supply store led to my discovering the pleasures of a cast-iron griddle that comes with a heat-resistant wooden platter that allows sizzling dishes to be carried directly to the table.
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In Latin restaurants, the pleasures of fajitas are well-known. Vegetables, usually onions and bell peppers, join meats, poultry and seafood on a cast-iron griddle to char and caramelize fats with as much sweetness as if they were prepared on the open flame of an outdoor barbecue. Asian chefs also place cast-iron griddles on heat-proof wooden platters so that diners can enjoy the aromas and excitement of vegetables and proteins charring right before their eyes.
The key to using a cast-iron griddle is being prepared. Like wok cooking, all the ingredients must be prepped before cooking begins. And once the ingredients are on the griddle, no distractions are allowed. To prevent burning, the vegetables and proteins must be turned constantly. A set of long-handled tongs is essential, as is a good exhaust fan over the stove to clear away any smoke.
All ingredients should be cut into bite-sized pieces, the better to cook quickly and also the better to create the greatest surface area for caramelization.
Griddles come in oval and rectangular shapes. Sizes vary from 8 to 14 inches. The recipe assumes a griddle at least 11 inches in length. A smaller size would require that the sautéeing take place using batches rather than all the ingredients at once.
Before using, the griddle needs to be tempered. Wash it thoroughly with soapy water and rinse with clean water. Place on a high flame (gas or electric) until all moisture has dried. When it is cool to the touch, place a small amount of oil on a paper towel and wipe it across the surface.
Before you store your griddle, cover it in plastic.
Before using it again, clean the griddle in case any rust has collected on the cooking surface. Place it on the burner on the highest possible heat. Do not apply oil.
Ingredients for griddle dishes should be tossed in oil and seasoned in a bowl before they’re placed on the hot griddle.
Cast-iron Griddle Sauté
2 pounds deboned chicken thigh or breast meat, skin removed, washed and pat dried. Alternately, use 2 pounds shelled, deveined shrimp, washed and pat dried; 2 pounds octopus tentacles, washed and finely sliced; 2 pounds filet mignon, washed and pat dried; 2 cups firm tofu, or 2 pounds skinned, deboned duck meat
1 tablespoon olive oil, divided
1 large garlic clove, skin removed, finely chopped
½ cup Italian parsley, washed, dried, leaves only, finely chopped
½-inch ginger knob, washed, peeled, finely chopped (optional)
Sea salt and pepper to taste
⅛ teaspoon cayenne (optional)
1 large yellow onion, peeled, stem and top removed, washed, sliced thin, longitudinally
1. Except for the shrimp, cut the chicken (or other protein choice) into bite-sized pieces, approximately ½-inch square.
2. Place chicken into a bowl, toss with ⅔ tablespoon olive oil, the garlic clove, parsley, ginger (optional) and season with sea salt, pepper and cayenne (optional). Set aside.
3. In a separate bowl, toss the sliced onion with the remaining oil. Season with sea salt and pepper.
4. Using tongs, place the onions on the hot griddle. The onion will sizzle and smoke, which is why you want the exhaust fan on high otherwise your cooking will rouse your smoke alarms. Keep turning the onions until they turn light brown. The caramelization has started.
5. Add the seasoned chicken or alternative. Toss well with tongs, combining the protein with the onions. Stir and toss until all pieces are cooked evenly and acquire a light brown patina.
6. Using oven mitts, transfer the sizzling hot cast-iron griddle to the wooden platter and carry it to the table where everyone is waiting for the feast to begin.
7. Serve with pasta, rice or a steamed green like spinach, broccoli or asparagus.
Top photo: Cast-iron Korean griddles on their heat-proof wooden platters at Gio Restaurant Equipment in Los Angeles. Credit: David Latt