Articles in Fish

Chef Gavin Stephenson tends to his bees. Credit: The Fairmont Olympic Hotel

Gavin Stephenson, the former chef of London’s Savoy hotel who has overseen kitchens at The Georgian and Shuckers restaurants at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel in Seattle for more than a decade, began his beekeeping program three years ago on the rooftop of this historic hotel that stands as a regal homage to a more refined and cultured past.

The ornate columns of the gold-gilded Georgian Restaurant might seem an odd counterpoint to the chef’s rooftop beekeeping program, a pursuit more commonly associated with the do-it-yourself artisan food restaurants sprinkled throughout Seattle’s quirky neighborhoods such as Queen Anne, Fremont and Ballard. But Stephenson’s honey program reflects the Fairmont hotel chain’s dedication to sustainability and commitment to sourcing locally at notable restaurants around the world, including in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Vancouver, Canada; Beijing; Singapore; London; Monte Carlo, Monaco; and Cairo.

At the Fairmont in Seattle, honey is drizzled over hot scones and homemade butter during The Georgian’s afternoon tea, bottles of Rooftop Honey are gifted to special guests, tangy local cheese is mellowed by ribbons of honey and the Pacific Northwest staple of salmon is sweetened with a glistening lacquer of it. Stephenson has even partnered with local brewery Pike Place to concoct a honey-infused beer.

Bees and beekeeping starting to catch on

The chef’s love of beekeeping has even spilled over into his own backyard, where he now keeps several hives for personal use. He says his neighbors were at first wary of getting stung by the bees but have since warmed to the idea, many now asking Stephenson for advice about keeping bees themselves. It’s a noble pursuit for a chef with a distinguished career in the kitchen and, more recently, on the rooftop.

I recently sat down with Stephenson at the Fairmont to find out more about his bees and beekeeping.

Why did you decide to start the honey program at the Fairmont Olympic and why is it important to you?

I was introduced to Corky Luster from Ballard Bee Co., who taught urban beekeeping. Colony collapse disorder is detrimental to our ecosystem, so I wanted to make a difference and do the right thing. At first it was very time consuming, but now it’s a labor of love. Not only is beekeeping beneficial to our environment and society, it’s also awesome to incorporate the honey into my menus at The Georgian and Shuckers.

Have you faced any challenges in getting the program up and running?

Absolutely. I’ve lost several hives. Urban beekeeping is a challenge on an exposed roof in the city 12 stories high. Washington beehives are sensitive to moisture and to extreme temperature changes. We had a few spring days with inclement weather that the bees could not handle. It was devastating every time I lost a hive. Mother Nature is a powerful reality.

Have you learned anything about honey production that surprised you?

You can have eight hives in a row and each hive produces honey with entirely different flavors. I learned that I cannot control the flavor of the honey. My bees travel up to 6 miles per day, and they have countless opportunities to pollinate flowers all over Seattle. The pollen and nectar that the worker bees extract can vary between the blackberries near the waterfront to the rooftop gardens throughout Pike Place Market and downtown Seattle.

Is the community of Seattle supportive of your efforts?

Absolutely! Everyone wants to know how the process works and I have had so many visitors interested in setting up their own hives. There are only a couple of entities downtown practicing beekeeping, so I look forward for others to join in on the fun and to contribute to a healthy environment.

Can you share a recipe featuring honey? What is your favorite thing about this recipe and its origin and any special tips for its preparation?

My favorite recipe is the Smoked Salmon Skewers With Rooftop Honey [recipe follows]. I enjoy the smoked flavor paired with the sweet flavors of honey.

What advice do you have for home beekeepers or other chefs who would like to produce honey?

Get ready to get stung. Buy an EpiPen [an epinephrine injection used in the case of an allergic reaction]. Don’t be alarmed when the female worker bees throw the male drone bees off your 12-story roof in the fall. No pun intended.

Smoked Salmon Skewers With Rooftop Honey

Yield: 4 servings, 12 (6-inch) skewers

Courtesy of chef Gavin Stephenson and The Georgian Restaurant

Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 pound King salmon belly
  • 2 tablespoons Rooftop Honey or honey of choice
  • 2 tablespoons Rooftop Honey Mustard
  • Necessary equipment:
  • 12 (6-inch) bamboo skewers
  • Wood chips smoker

Directions

  1. To make cure, mix together brown sugar, lemon zest and kosher salt.
  2. Cut salmon into finger-size pieces, about 3 inches by ¾ inches.
  3. Place salmon pieces onto bamboo skewers and place on tray, then sprinkle liberally with cure.
  4. Let sit for 20 to 30 minutes.
  5. Move to a clean pan.
  6. Set up smoker and smoke the salmon for 5 minutes.
  7. Bake salmon at 280 F to desired degree of doneness, about 8 minutes.
  8. Drizzle with warm Rooftop Honey or serve with Rooftop Honey Mustard.

Main photo: Chef Gavin Stephenson tends to his bees. Credit: The Fairmont Olympic Hotel

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Honey-coated fried swordfish. Credit: Barbara Haber

It seems that Americans are not making much culinary use of honey these days and are more likely to value bees for their ability to pollinate crops than for the food they produce. Unlike those living in ancient cultures who cherished honey and considered it the food of the gods, Americans seem to think of it as just another supermarket product and not a very important one at that.

We currently sweeten our food with inexpensive granulated sugar and corn syrup, so the more costly honey is thought of as a specialty item that is most useful to people baking Greek pastries. Many supermarket shoppers are not even aware that not all honey tastes the same. But if you talk to beekeepers, you discover that the nectar that the bees gather from a particular plant will produce honey that varies in flavor from other plants so that, for instance, we get an aromatic honey from orange blossoms, whereas buckwheat produces a dark, deep-flavored product.

This information was brought home when I had an emergency caused by a wasp nest in my backyard. Expecting houseguests and planning an al fresco lunch, I noticed a menacing stream of yellow jackets zooming in and out of a hole near where I had planned to set up a picnic table. I located someone who advertised himself as a bee and wasp expert, and he promised to come right over. Soon, a yellow truck in the shape of a bumblebee pulled into my driveway and out came a man wearing a straw hat and coveralls, and sporting a straggly beard that reached almost to his waist. He looked like a 19th-century farmer hailing from the wilds of Maine or Vermont.

Adventures in beekeeping

The man eliminated the wasps in a hurry and then joined us on the porch, regaling us with story after story about his adventures as a beekeeper and about the wonders of honey. Before leaving, instead of a business card, he gave me a jar of honey produced from his own hives with a label that had his contact information.That honey was a revelation to me, smooth yet tingling with complex flavors, convincing me that I was eating a new food. Since that time, whenever I am at a farmers market, I head right for the honey people who often provide delicious tastes.

The early Romans prized honey for its flavor and its ability to preserve foods. There are many recipes attributed to Apicius, who lived during the reign of Tiberius. He used honey in sauces served with meat or fish, and often balanced them with vinegar to create a sweet and sour effect. One of those recipes is for mushrooms cooked in honey, olive oil and fish sauce that wind up with a honey glaze, a dish I mean to try. Instead of coating meat in a thick layer of salt in order to preserve it, Apicius suggested coating it with honey, a practice he also used to preserve fruit.

The Romans also added honey to dry white wine to produce mulsum, a drink that was served with appetizers, and they drank mead, an alcoholic drink made of fermented honey that was consumed all over the ancient world. I once went to a banquet featuring a historic Roman meal and had a wonderful time tasting dish after dish of well-seasoned delicious foods and interesting drinks.

New England honey. Credit: Barbara Haber

New England honey. Credit: Barbara Haber

Because honey is such an ancient food, it has a long history not only of recipes but of beliefs in its power to cure disease, and it was seen as a talisman, a protector against misfortune. One superstition advised that strings dipped in honey at sunrise and tied around fruit trees would ensure that an excellent crop would be produced.

Bees too have had their legends. For instance, it was thought that if a bee enters your house, it is a sign that a visitor will appear, and if you kill the bee the visitor will be unpleasant. Even today claims are made about the health benefits of honey, suggesting it can ward off cancer, alleviate allergies and soothe minor burns.

Colony Collapse Disorder

These days, attention is being paid to the mystery of the disappearing bees. Commercial beekeepers whose livelihood depends on their transporting beehives from one part of the country to another in order to pollinate crops are experiencing a threat. Bees are mysteriously disappearing from their hives, a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder, and scientists around the world are trying to work out the causes, speculations that lay the blame at pathogens, fungus, pesticides, and the wear and tear of being hauled around on pollination jobs, or all of these things.

A new study from the Harvard School of Public Health points the finger at a class of insecticides called neonicotinoids, which appear to significantly harm honey bee colonies, particularly during cold winters.

This threat makes me appreciate honey all the more, and I am always on the lookout for dishes that include it — not just sweets such as baklava, but savory dishes that use just a little for flavoring. I found such a dish recently while browsing through a used bookstore, and came across “One Pot Spanish” by Penelope Casas that has a recipe for fresh tuna with a touch of honey. I love this dish and cook it regularly with swordfish, which I prefer, and it has become a family favorite.

Atun Frito Con Miel (Honey-Coated Fried Tuna)

This is adapted from Penelope Casas’ “One Pot Spanish.”

Serves 4

Ingredients

2 pounds fresh tuna or swordfish steaks

Salt

2 eggs

½ teaspoon ground cumin

Honey, enough to lightly coat both sides of the fish

All-purpose flour for dusting

Olive oil for frying

Directions

1. Cut fish steaks into four pieces and sprinkle both sides with salt.

2. Beat together the eggs with the cumin in a shallow dish.

3. Spread both sides of the fish steaks with a thin layer of honey.

4. Dust the steaks with flour, then coat both sides with the egg mixture.

5. Heat about ⅛ inch of olive oil in a skillet. Place steaks into the pan and cook over medium-high heat, turning once and cooking each side for 4 to 5 minutes until the coating is golden and the fish is cooked to taste.

Main photo: Honey-coated fried swordfish. Credit: Barbara Haber

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Main photo: Fish a la Archestratus with tilapia, foreground, and Salmon, Badass Cavalryman Style. Credit: Charles Perry

Most fish are so delicate we add only minimal flavoring, probably nothing more than a squeeze of lemon these days. The ancient Greeks and Romans, in no position to use lemon juice because the lemon hadn’t arrived, tended to use vinegar. Sometimes, they even added cheese.

It’s a slick idea. Give it a try.

We know this because a Greek foodie named Archestratus sampled fish all around the eastern Mediterranean, and around 330 B.C. he wrote a poem about his findings. It has not survived complete, and we aren’t even sure about its title — it has been referred to as “Gastronomia” and “The Life of Luxury,” among other names. Most of the surviving fragments appear in a book called “The Deipnosophists,” which was written some five centuries later, ample testimony to its fame.

Here is one fragment: “Whenever Orion is setting in the heavens and the mother of the wine-bearing grape clusters is casting away her long hair, then it is the time to have a baked sargue sprinkled with cheese — a large one, and piping hot, and cut with sharp vinegar.”

Well, it was a poem; these days even the most bizarro food writer wouldn’t dream of referring to grapevines losing their hair. As for sargue (or sargo), it’s a member of the bream family that is well regarded in the Mediterranean today, but Archestratus recommended his preferred treatment for bland fish, topping it with cheese as well as sprinkling it with vinegar (which I think works better here than lemon juice). I suggest using it on tilapia, a bland fish that is readily available.

Archestratus lived in a Greek colony in Sicily, and in another passage he associates the idea of sprinkling cheese on fish with the Syracusans, who would, of course, have used some kind of Sicilian cheese. What was that cheese like? We don’t know.

However, in the Middle Ages, the Arabs imported Sicilian cheese (jubn siqilli) and added it to vegetable dishes at the same time as spices, suggesting that it was grated, so you could use Sicilian ricotta salata or even Parmesan or Romano. This is the oldest recipe I ever make for fun, rather than research.

Fish a la Archestratus

Serves 2 

Ingredients

2 tilapia filets, about 10 ounces

1 tablespoon light olive oil

Salt to taste

2 to 3 tablespoons grated ricotta salata, Parmesan or other grating cheese

Vinegar to taste

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.

2. Spread oil in a baking dish.

3. Set the fish in the dish and sprinkle with the salt and cheese. The cheese will melt after 10 minutes, fish will flake at 14 to 15.

4. Serve hot with a sprinkling of vinegar.

* * *

Here’s another simple fish recipe, this one from the 18th century. It appears in Louis Auguste de Bourbon’s “Le Cuisinier Gascon” (1740) as a variation on truite à la hussarde. Hussars were proverbially dashing, impetuous, overbearing, none-too-intelligent cavalrymen who wore flashy uniforms and claimed to be so badass they would be ashamed to not to die by the time they were 30. (A lot of people hoped the same fate for them.)

It’s such a simple dish it scarcely needs a recipe — it’s so simple that a hussar could probably cook it. You just poach the fish and serve it with a sort of 18th-century tartar sauce. If you prefer trout, go ahead and make it with that.

Salmon, Badass Cavalryman Style

Serves 2

Ingredients

For the sauce:

½ cup mayonnaise

3 to 4 teaspoons capers along with ½ teaspoon caper brine

½ teaspoon Dijon mustard, or more to taste

For the fish:

10 ounces salmon filet

Water

1 teaspoon lemon juice or 1 tablespoon dry white wine

Directions

1. Put the mayonnaise into a sauce bowl. Stir in the capers and caper brine, then the mustard. Add the mustard bit by bit, because too much can make the sauce seem salty.

2. Put the filets in a pan. Add water nearly to cover, then the lemon juice.

3 Heat over medium heat, turning the fish after 5 minutes, until the fish flakes easily with a fork, about 10 minutes.

4. Drain the fish and serve hot or cold with the hussar sauce.

Main photo: Fish a la Archestratus with tilapia, foreground, and Salmon, Badass Cavalryman Style. Credit: Charles Perry

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Rock cod (Lotella rhacina) caught off the California coast. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Whenever I think about fresh fish I always picture that old MAD magazine column “Silly Answers to Stupid Questions.” The female customer asks at the fish store, “Is that fish fresh?” And the fishmonger answers, “No, it’s very well-mannered.” Seriously though, the question was fair because it does come down to the fishmonger knowing best.

Today’s fishmongers offer a variety of filleted fish, making our lives easier. But this convenience sometimes means customers get lower-quality fish than they did when they bought it unfilleted. Judging whether a fish is fresh is not such an easy thing. It’s not hard for the fishmongers because when they buy it they have access to the fresh-caught fish and knowledge of fish that the consumer does not have.

They often know the fishermen or fish brokers. They have the opportunity to smell and handle the whole fish. Good fishmongers know where the fish was caught and who caught it and they know which areas of the ocean and seas have the right kind of nutrients for particular fish. Not all fishmongers know this, but the good ones do.

Consumers are at a great disadvantage. They cannot even see the whole fish because it often arrives at the fish store from a central processing facility. The fillets are cut into perfect and identical pieces with little to distinguish them from one another.

A fish name doesn’t tell you everything

Furthermore, the fish often have names that have nothing to do with their species. When you buy black cod you’re not buying cod. When you buy Chilean sea bass you’re not buying sea bass. In the first case, black cod is sablefish (Anoplopoma fimbria), which tastes nothing like cod and is the only species in the Anoplopoma genus. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved “sablefish” as the only acceptable market name and considered “black cod” a regional name not to be used for statement of identity purposes. In the second case, Chilean sea bass is an invented marketing name for Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides), a deep-dwelling Antarctic Ocean fish.

Only one sure way to test whether it’s fresh fish

The standard techniques for judging whether a fish is fresh — using your senses of sight, smell and touch — often won’t help the average consumer. Along with not having access to whole fish, customers also often find the fish store does not know where the fish was caught and when. When was the last time a supermarket fishmonger answered, “The fish was caught seven days ago off the Alaska coast?” I can answer that — never.

A consumer’s senses also are useless when the fish sometimes has been doused in sodium benzoate that can disguise a poor quality filleted fish.

There is only one way to determine the freshness of filleted fish, and that is through taste. Since this is not convenient when shopping, customers must trust the fishmonger the first time and then repeat their business if they like his or her fish. If the fish you buy at a particular store is consistently good, then that is your guide for fresh fish. Fresh fish should not taste “fishy,” and the store should not smell “fishy.” It should smell like the briny ocean.

Where the quality fishmongers are

Top quality fish will taste good, unadorned with sauces, while lesser quality fish will taste insipid and generic and — in a telltale sign of non-freshness — fishy. Choose the freshest fish before choosing the recipe. I usually find top quality fishmongers in ethnic areas where fish cookery is important to that particular culture, such as Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Italian, Greek, Portuguese or Caribbean neighborhoods.

Lastly, don’t be a boob and ask, “Is this fish fresh?” What do you think they’ll answer?

Main photo: Rock cod (Lotella rhacina) caught off the California coast. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Spuma di tonno sott’olio. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Canned tuna is one of those great foods that is undervalued and underappreciated. You need to think of it as more than cat food for humans. Canned tuna is more than something you dump mayonnaise into for a sandwich. Canned tuna can be the basis for some impressive and noble dishes.

You will need to think beyond the standard dried out albacore tuna sold as some kind of bland chicken from the sea. What you really are looking for is tender tuna packed in olive oil. This is what the Italians call tonno sott’olio. Its uses are many, and the Italians will incorporate it into toast points, salads and tossed with pasta.

One delightful way of using canned tuna is for an antipasto from the region of Umbria called spuma di tonno sott’olio, which means “foam of tuna under oil.”

The Italian spuma, which means foam, is given to preparations that are beaten or whipped so the final result is not quite like the ethereal preparations found in the avant-garde cooking of 21st-century restaurant chefs called foams, but is meant to be light and flavorful. As Umbria is an inland region without a coastline, its seafood has traditionally been preserved either with salt or in oil or vinegar.

So now the bad news, or should I say the cautionary news? Good quality oil-packed tuna is going to be more expensive than the tuna you’re used to buying.

Consider this: You go to the market to buy fresh sashimi-grade tuna belly and it’s $25 a pound and tastes wonderful. Do you think your $3 a pound chunk light tuna canned in water is going to taste remotely similar? No, it’s not, and that’s why you need to think of this preparation as something special and look for some Italian tuna fillets packed in the best extra virgin olive oil. A 6-ounce jar will probably cost you $15.

You can preserve your own tuna too. Place the freshly bought tuna in a pan filled with water salted with sea salt and bring to a gentle boil. Turn the heat off and let the tuna sit in the hot water for 20 minutes. Then drain, pat dry with paper towels and pack the fish in glass jars and fill with the best olive oil. The tuna pieces can also be deep fried instead of poached. This is a special antipasto so treat it specially.

Spuma di Tonno sott’Olio

Serves 8 as an antipasto course

Ingredients

12 ounces canned tuna in extra virgin olive oil

2 teaspoons anchovy paste

½ pound mascarpone cheese

Olive oil

1 hard-boiled large egg, shelled and sliced

1 oil-preserved artichoke heart, sliced

Directions

1. Blend the tuna in a food processor with the anchovy paste and mascarpone until smooth. Place parchment paper in a 5-by-2-inch round terrine, and oil the parchment paper well with olive oil.

2. Spoon the mixture in and smooth the top flat. Cover with plastic wrap or wax paper and refrigerate for 2 hours. Unmold and garnish the top with sliced hard-boiled egg and artichokes and serve.

 Top photo: Spuma di tonno sott’olio. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Vegetable chirashi sushi. Credit: Sonoko Sakai

Some foods belong in a restaurant and some belong at home. To a Japanese person, sushi, for the most part, would be considered a restaurant food: You go to a sushi bar and the sushi chef makes it for you. The quintessential sushi is nigiri sushi – hand-formed rice made into a small, bite-size clump with sliced raw fish resting on top. With nigiri sushi, both the fish and the rice are fresh. When made by a skilled sushi chef, the flavor is divine. I don’t make that kind of sushi.

Still, when people find out that I teach Japanese cooking classes, one of the first questions they ask is if I teach sushi making. When I have to tell them that I don’t teach nigiri sushi, they seem rather disappointed. What I make is home-style sushi, which includes chirashi sushi, Inari sushi and maki sushi, but I leave nigiri sushi to the professional chefs. Most cooks in Japan will tell you the same thing. It takes years of laborious practice to learn how to properly select, clean and cut fish to make good sushi — just watch the documentary “Jiro’s Dreams of Sushi.”

Recently, I was browsing on Amazon and found dozens of sushi cookbooks, many of them featuring nigiri sushi. Can there be that many people attempting to make nigiri sushi at home? Or are they just salivating over the beautiful pictures of nigiri sushi?

On the contrary, if you go to bookstores in Japan, you will have a hard time finding a cookbook devoted to sushi for home cooks. You would mostly likely have to look in the professional section. And because sushi is a trade you learn through years of training under a sushi master, you won’t really find a manual for it at your corner bookstore.

The only memory I have of making nigiri sushi is with my grandmother while growing up near the sea in Kamakura, Japan, where there were plenty of fishermen and fish to be had. Grandmother and I would get up at dawn to buy fresh fish fresh off the boat. We got to look at and pick the fish, and the price depended on the fishermen’s mood. The fish was still wiggling in the bag while we walked home.

My grandmother would clean the fish, fillet it and marinate it in a vinegar sauce for a few minutes. We then cooked some rice, which she seasoned with salt, sugar and vinegar to make sushi rice, and she would julienne some fresh ginger. When the fish was marinated and cooked like ceviche, she sliced it up, made little rice balls and put the fish on top. That was her version of nigiri sushi. The rice clumps were not even and artful like a sushi master’s, but it was tasty because the ingredients were good and they were made by my grandmother.

Coming back to the present, there is hardly any sushi-grade fish like that available here in Southern California where I live, so there is no point in pursuing that kind of sushi. Sushi chefs can go to wholesale sellers and buy sushi-grade fish, but home cooks rarely have that kind of access to high-quality fish.

Let’s not be completely pessimistic. I do have a few things to make sushi that are harvested in Southern California — sea urchin, Santa Barbara shrimp and squid. But I don’t make nigiri sushi with them. I just slice them up sashimi style and eat them with wasabi and soy. Easy.

Sushi for home cooks

So what is the sushi I make at home or most home cooks in Japan make at home? There are basically four varieties: chirashi sushi, maki sushi, Inari sushi and oshizushi.

Chirashi is a kind of a pilaf, made with sushi rice and a variety of toppings. You are already familiar with maki sushi if you have eaten a California roll or other sushi rice — it is a sushi roll that includes toasted nori seaweed rolled around vinegar-flavored rice and various fillings, including raw seafood and vegetables. California roll was invented by a sushi chef based in Los Angeles who, in the early days of sushi, didn’t have good access to sushi-grade fish like the fatty tuna. He discovered that avocado had a similar meaty and fatty flavor and texture, so he used that to make the rolls, and history was made.

Inari sushi, or footballs, as Japanese-Americans nicknamed them, is a deep-fried tofu pouch stuffed with seasoned sushi rice and vegetables. There is also oshizushi, which is a type of sushi that uses a small wooden box to press the sushi into little rectangles.

These types of sushi are easy to make for a home cook, and the ingredients can be varietal. These types of sushi also don’t require hand-molding each piece. I wouldn’t hesitate to make sushi with non-Japanese ingredients.

In spring, Japan celebrates Girl’s Day on March 3 with chirashi zushi, but this pilaf-like sushi can be eaten throughout the year. I make it quite often, using a vegetarian recipe. But you can also add shrimp, sea urchin or slices of fish toppings. If you happen on something very fresh — sushi-grade quality — slice it up and put it on, too.

Vegetable chirashi sushi

Serves 4

Ingredients

For the sushi:

16 ounces (450 grams) short-grain rice

1 piece kombu, about 2 inches long

3 tablespoons ginger, peeled and minced

10 shiso leaves, minced

3 tablespoons roasted sesame seeds

Amazu ginger for garnish (optional)

For the vinegar dressing:

5 tablespoons rice vinegar

3 tablespoons sugar

2 teaspoons salt

For the kanpyo (dried gourd) and dried shitake mushroom filling:

8 dried shiitake mushrooms, hydrated with 2 cups water

½ ounce (15 grams) of dried kanpyo, hydrated

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 to 2 tablespoons sugar

For the carrot filling:

1 carrot, julienned

½ teaspoon salt

For the tamago, or egg topping:

3 eggs, beaten

1 teaspoon cornstarch, dissolved with 1 tablespoon water

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon sugar

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

For the garnish:

2 or 3 mitsuba leaves or watercress leaf

Directions

1. Cook the rice with the kombu seaweed as you would standard rice, according to package directions.

2. Meanwhile, mix the ingredients for the vinegar dressing in a bowl and combine.

3. To make the seasoned gourd and shitake mushrooms, combine the hydrated shitake mushrooms and kanpyo in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Turn heat to a simmer and season the vegetables with the salt, sugar and soy sauce until most of the liquid is absorbed. Remove the mushrooms and kanpyo, then mince them and set aside.

4. Bring water to a boil in a small pan, add salt and blanch the carrots. Drain. Set aside.

5. To make the tamago, beat the eggs, cornstarch solution, salt and sugar in a bowl.

6. In a non-stick frying pan, heat oil over medium high heat and add ⅓ of the beaten egg mixture to make a thin crepe. When one side is cooked, flip the crepe over and cook the other side. Repeat two more times.

7. Slice the crepes into 1½–inch (4-centimeter) matchsticks. Set aside in a bowl.

8. When the rice is cooked, discard the kombu and transfer the rice into a large bowl. Add the vinegar dressing  and toss lightly.

9. Add the minced ginger, shiso and roasted sesame seeds to the rice.

10. Add the minced shitake mushrooms, kanpyo and carrots to the rice and toss lightly.

11. Top with slices of egg and garnish with watercress or mitsuba leaves.

Top photo: Vegetable chirashi sushi. Credit: Sonoko Sakai

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Pesce spade alla “stemperata” made with red snapper. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

One of the most beautiful cities in Sicily is Syracuse, which has a history extending to the ancient Greeks. There is a method of cooking in Syracuse, especially applied to Sicilian fish, but other foods as well, that makes for beguiling dishes.

Stemperata is a Syracusean method of cooking that means something like “melting sauce” or “tempering sauce.”

The idea behind “melting sauce” is to meld a number of aromatic ingredients together by cooking slowly until the sauce or food is infused with flavor. The dish is finished with a sprinkle of vinegar that evaporates, or “melts,” into the sauce and it is the vinegar that gives the dish its distinctive flavor. Whenever you see a dish described as stemperata, you know it is a dish from Syracuse.

The concept of stemperata finds its roots in medieval cooking. According to the prevailing theory of dietetics at the time, prepared food had properties that would match the temperament of the person eating it.

In the mood for Sicilian fish

Certain foods were ideal for particular conditions or temperaments. The nature of foods could be changed by tempering the food with additions such as sauces or spicing.

In medieval Italian cookbooks one runs across the term temperare, which takes on a greater meaning than “to temper.” It implies that one corrects the food so it will conform to a dietetic humoral notion. So the Italian stemperare has the sense of taking something away, and in this recipe it is the vinegar that “is taken away” through evaporation to moderate the taste of the sauce.

This Sicilian fish dish is called pesce spada alla “stemperata” and it is typically made with swordfish, but two whole red snapper work well. The recipe, though, is written for swordfish.

Pesce Spade alla ‘Stemperata’

Serves 4

Ingredients

5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 medium onion, finely chopped

½ celery stalk, finely chopped

1½ tablespoons capers, rinsed and chopped if large

10 large green olives, pitted and chopped

1 pound ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped

⅓  cup water

1½ pounds swordfish steaks, cut into ½-inch-thick slices

All-purpose flour for dredging

1 tablespoon white wine vinegar

Directions

1. In a large sauté pan or earthenware casserole, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, then cook, stirring frequently, the onion and celery until softened, 5 to 6 minutes. (If using earthenware and if it is not flameproof, or if you don’t know, you will need to use a heat diffuser. Earthenware heats up slower but retains its heat longer than non-earthenware casseroles. When using earthenware, food may cook slower at first and then cook very quickly while retaining its heat, so adjust accordingly). Reduce the heat to medium, add the capers, olives and tomatoes, and stir. Pour in the water, stir again, and cook until denser, 10 minutes.

2. Dredge the swordfish slices in the flour, tapping off any excess flour. Set aside.

3. Arrange the swordfish slices in the pan or casserole on top of the sauce, spooning some sauce on top of the swordfish. Drizzle the vinegar over the fish, cover, and cook over medium heat until the vinegar is evaporated, 5 to 6 minutes. Serve hot.

Top photo: Pesce spade alla “stemperata” made with red snapper. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Oysters on the half shell with a perfect white. Credit: Jon Rowley

A Valentine’s Day menu needs to include oysters. First, just because it is tradition. Also, our hero of love, Giacomo Girolamo Casanova de Seingalt (1725-1798), the famous Venetian adventurer whose reputation as a seducer of women was so great his name became synonymous with the art of seduction, says so.

Casanova wrote in his autobiography that cultivating and pleasing the senses was his main preoccupation. “Ho molto amato anche la buona tavola ed insieme tutte le cose che eccitano la curiosità” (I very much loved a good table and everything that excites the curiosity), he remarked.

Casanova ate 50 oysters every day for breakfast. Several studies show that the amorous benefits of this might not just be an old wives’ tale. Oysters are rich in zinc, which is important for hormone production related to sexual activity. It is important to eat the oysters raw, though, as cooking reduces this aphrodisiacal effect. Casanova also suggested how to serve them: “I placed the shell on the edge of her lips and after a good deal of laughing, she sucked in the oyster, which she held between her lips. I instantly recovered it by placing my lips on hers.”

Oysters in Thai chile cream sauce. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Oysters in Thai chile cream sauce. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Here is a delightful little recipe that will tingle both the senses and the expectation. The recipe is for two, of course, because three’s a crowd on Valentine’s Day.

Oysters in Champagne Cream Sauce With Thai Chile

Serves 2 as an appetizer

Ingredients

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

2 tablespoons finely chopped onion

1 red Thai chile, thinly slivered

4 shucked Pacific oysters with their juice

3 tablespoons Champagne

¼ cup heavy cream

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Directions

1. In a small nonstick skillet, melt the butter over high heat and then add the onion and chile and cook, shaking the pan, until translucent, about 1 minute.

2. Add the oysters and their juice, pour in the Champagne and let it evaporate for 30 seconds.

3. Pour in the cream and cook over high heat, shaking the pan and turning the oysters until their edges curl up, about 4 minutes.

4. Remove the oysters to a plate or place back in their shell and continue cooking the liquid until denser and saucy, about 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Pour over the oysters and serve.

Top photo: Oysters on the half shell with a perfect white. Credit: Jon Rowley

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