Fried Smelts with Risotto and Other Surprises

(Source: lotussutra.wordpress.com)

As promised, the recipes for the Feast of the Seven Fishes are getting more and more ‘out there.’ I make no apologies. This is a lengthy post and requires a cook with more hands than Shiva. There will be more fusion and more difficulty from here on out. Be an armchair cook or pony up, source the ingredients, and “make it so Number One.”

This recipe is number 4 in our countdown from 7. At the outset I will say that fried smelts are a traditional element in the Feast of the Seven Fishes. Traditional is great, but smelts can nevertheless be difficult to find, for of course they must be fresh, silvery, lithe and odorless. But fortune smiled and I found them in a diminutive fish restaurant cum market in West Brattleboro, VT – a place called Gillies.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bought some unpopular product from a fish counter and have had the proprietor eye me askance, for just a moment, then a smile emerges, then the animated conversation about what’s for dinner. This is what I call connecting. It is a genuine human feeling that there is a commonality between you and another human being. Let’s just say I feel blessed when these moments occur.

Lithe and luminous - fresh smelts ready for action! (Source: italianhandful.wordpress.com)

And so, this jolly, round man weighed up my smelts for all of a couple dollars. He said “this time of year…” knowing that only a phrase meant a paragraph. I said “fried up with mushroom risotto.” His wife, I guess, trundled in and said “we serve ‘em at the restaurant with chips.” I’m thinking she meant fries, but there was no English accent. I bounded out into a bolt of sun that broke through the gray sky of the day.

There is so much to write about smelts. Truly. But not here. I already have an entire essay on smelts that I hope to use in the introduction of my first cookbook. Indeed I will likely draw further conclusions from this codex. My late-in-life discovery of the marvel of smelts is a personal idiom, one about the importance of trying new things, eschewing prejudice. I encourage you to find your own smelts, or beef tongue, or cross-dressing, or fascination with crochet. We expand ourselves by taking small bites out of fear.

Dredge in flour, fry ‘em, toss ‘em on a pile of spinach. No problem. But that’s not my plan. No, now I must find my other difficult treasures: the porcinis (Boletus sp.), Arborio rice, the fennel bulb, and whatever else weaves its way into my fascination. I make myself laugh… it is a wicked web we weave… when a complicated dinner we conceive. Even more so, because pairing a beer with fried fish and fries is simple. With this recipe I’m forcing myself to find an all-rounder that will match the fish, the earthy savoriness, the acidity of lemon and the sulfur of Brussels sprouts.

Fried Smelts with Earth Vegetables, etc., etc.

Ingredients for Four

Time to Prepare: 36 hours     –     Time to Eat: 10 minutes

Porcini Risotto

  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1/2 oz dried porcini mushrooms
  • 1-1/2 tbsp olive oil
  • 3/4 cup onions, chopped
  • 1 cup Arborio rice
  • 3 cups homemade beef stock with marrow, see note
  • pinch saffron threads, crushed
  • 1/2 teas marjoram, dried
  • 1/4 cup pecorino romano cheese, finely grated
  • salt and fresh black pepper to taste

Note on beef stock: Sear 1-1/2 lb beef shank on all sides in 2 tbsp olive oil. Add 12 oz of low bitterness brown ale or porter and 2 tbsp barbecue sauce. Top up with 4-6 cups water and braise covered for several hours until everything falls apart. Cool enough to handle. Remove the shank bone, meat and any un-rendered fat, but push the marrow back into the liquid. Mash the marrow into the stock. Chill to solidify the fat, then discard the fat. Heat the stock to a low boil, skimming if required, and reduce to 3 cups. Keep warm for use in risotto. Note that for purists, the use of meat or dairy in a Feast of the Seven Fishes dish is forbidden.

Preparation of the Risotto

The risotto recipe is in a style called Milanese and this version is adapted from The New Basics Cookbook by Rosso & Lukins (Workman, 1989).

In a small pan, heat the wine to boiling, add the dried mushrooms, then remove from the heat. In a heavy, straight-sided pot or cooktop-safe casserole heat the oil, add onions until soft, 5 minutes, then stir in rice for another 3 minutes. Adjust heat to medium-low.

With continuous stirring add 1/2 cup of the warm stock. When that liquid is absorbed, repeat with another bit of stock. You will be stirring gently like this for the next 30 minutes – do not let the rice sit in a pool of liquid. The classic way to know when you’re ready for more liquid is when the bottom of the pot comes into view during stirring. When half the stock has been added, switch to adding the warm wine-mushroom liquid. Stir in the crushed saffron and marjoram. Continue with the wine until all used, then finish with the stock. Taste for doneness. You want al dente with no pithy interior to the rice. A small amount of warm water can be added if you need to keep going. Milanese risotto should be creamy, but not runny, whereas risotto from southern Italy tends to be soupier.

Stir in the cheese and salt and pepper, using caution with the salt because of the saltiness of the cheese. Cover the dish and keep lukewarm until plating.

Fennel-Burdock Dice with Brussels Sprouts

  • 2 tbsp finely, uniformly diced burdock root (Jap: gobo), see note.
  • 1 teas whole annato seeds
  • 1/4 cup purified water, acidulated with a splash of lemon juice
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/4 cup finely, uniformly diced fennel bulb, white part only
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 1 cup brussels sprouts
  • 1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
  • salt and fresh black pepper to taste

Notes on burdock root. If unavailable you may substitute with parsnip and/or celeriac (celery root), but skip the annato infusion and add to the sauté with the fennel. Burdock (Arctium lappa) is a medicinal root that looks something like salsify, or, if you’ve never seen that, then like a three foot long brown, anemic carrot. It is most commonly used in sushi where the baby roots are pickled in orange dye and MSG – ick! It has a smokey, woodsy, faintly artichoke taste that is unique – yum! My preparation is designed to achieve the same thing without the unnatural additives. (Also, contrary to popular myth, annato is not just a colorant – crush some and smell for yourself.) This side dish embodies the three colors of the Italian flag, with the burdock/annato supplying the red. Warning: burdock is a stimulant that has a caffeine-like effect. Even handling it before bed last night kept me up most of the night! Who needs Red Bull?

Preparation of the Vegetables

Do not peel burdock, rather scrape the skin off with the edge of a paring knife or use a 3M pad. Cut into uniform fine dice (3 mm) and immediately submerge in the acidulated water to avoid discoloration. Grind the annato seeds in a mortar until you achieve an oily pigment. Now you’re ready to paint the Sistine Chapel. No, now add this to the burdock and liquid allowing same to sit in the fridge overnight.

Now, to get busy, sauté just the burdock (reserving the red liquid) in the olive oil over medium heat for 10 minutes, gradually adding the red liquid. Cook until the liquid is absorbed and the burdock is soft enough to eat. It is a fibrous root so let’s leave it with a little of that natural texture. Set aside.

In a clean pan, separate from the burdock, melt the butter and sauté the fennel until al dente. Meanwhile, in a small steamer, steam the Brussels sprouts for about 6 minutes, until the tip of a knife penetrates, but they are not mushy. Toss the Brussels sprouts into the fennel, then add the lemon juice, salt & pepper. At the last moment, stir in the reserved burdock and immediately plate beside the risotto, arranging to your heart’s content.

Fried Smelts

  • 1.5 lbs fresh, cleaned, beheaded smelts
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • salt & pepper to suit your taste
  • juice of 1 lemon

Final Assembly

Begin by heating the oil in a broad pan until it shimmers. Keep the temperature steady. Pat dry the smelts and check for things that might have been missed during evisceration. Coat the smelts with lemon juice, then dredge in the flour to which you’ve added the salt and pepper. This can be done in a baggie, Shake-n-Bake style. Fry the smelts in an uncrowded single layer in the pan for about 3 minutes per side.

Plate the smelts onto a mound of risotto. The burdock-fennel-brussels sprouts mix goes beside. Garish with a lemon wedge and some fresh, flat-leafed parsley. Due to the range of oily, nutty, woodsy, sulfury, acidic flavors, you are going to want a beer that is equally complex. I recommend the Italian beer Genziana, brewed in the style of a Belgian farmhouse ale. It employs gentian root (Gentiana lutea), the bitter and medicinal element in Angostura Bitters, and has a honeyish sweetness and flowery hop aroma backed by yeast-driven depth and a lingering bitterness. I found it to be excellent with this dinner. May you and your army of sous chefs enjoy! TPJ

Dinner is served!

p.s. Tasting notes for beers paired with this dinner follow.

Some beers that paired credibly with this dish.

  • Saison du Buff (collaboration between Stone, Dogfish, and Victory), 6.8%
    • beer itself: bitter, yeast aromatics, vulcanized rubber/sulfur, herbaceous
    • popped out fresh vegetable notes from the brussels sprouts et al, collaborated with the risotto, a little slick with the fried fish
  • Raison D’Être (Dogfish Head, DE), 8%
    • the beer: malty & sugary, cedar pencil shavings, warming, low yeast factors
    • really matched the risotto, softened the vegetables, and enhanced earthiness from the fish; a happy union, if not very surprising or synergistic
  • Maudite (Unibroue, QE, Canada), 8%
    • the beer: pronounced pepperiness, dried fruit, meaty yeast
    • passable but not exceptional, too much spice and alcohol warmth
  • Prima Pils (Victory Brewing, PA)
    • bright flor-herbal hop aroma, light grainy malt, crisp sweet/bitter finish
    • held up very well with all flavors and popped up the lemon flavors

The Countdown

So far:

  • No. 7 – Bacalao con Patates Dulces (Spanish-American salt cod and sweet potato casserole), best served with a hoppy American ale
  • No. 6 – Moules à la Normande (French-style steamed mussels with creamy bleu cheese finish), serve with a semi-sweet hard cider (check out Farnum Hill).
  • No. 5 – Ceviché Mixto (Peruvian cold seafood salad with chilis and citrus juice), served with a cold pilsner or the Classic Cocktail: the Pisco Sour.
  • No. 4 – Fried Smelts (Italian, with a mushroom risotto and fennel-burdock side salad), served with an Italian saison-styled beer.

On deck:

  • No. 3 – PBR and Caviar – (Russian-White Trash Fusion) Dine like a rock star, served with ice-cold cheap beer.

We’re more than halfway there – How’s your Christmas shopping going? TPJ

Bose-Einstein Physics Meet BBQ

As is the way with great discoveries, scientific and otherwise, today I invented the Q-ball by combining essential tidbits from earlier enlightened philosophies. I employed Occam’s Razor, which as applied to food preparation can be interpreted as the “You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces – just good food from fresh ingredients” (Julia Child).

I also employed Quantum Physics by accepting the conundrum that while every electron lives at its own little orbit, these orbits are infinitesimally close to one another, and in fact, we never know if that little bugger is home or out gathering charge. In other words, everything is just a blob. (Matt to Dr. Scala: “You mean you’ve lied to us?” Professor: “Well, yes.”)

And then there is the third component: Tennessee Pork. Slow roasted natural pork butt, cooked overnight in the slow cooker with a bottle of rauchbier (smoked beer), ancho chilis, and beaucoup cumin, then shredded and mixed with chipotle BBQ sauce. Recipe follows.

So what happens when these concepts are synthesized? Do we get the next Halliburton loophole to shave more dough from the federal larder? No, this is much more world-changing. More precisely my invention is called a ‘Q-Ball (note the apostrophe – since it represents a contraction of BBQ). The ‘ball’ part will soon be self-evident, but let’s further describe this ball as a non-topological soliton.

One example of a soliton is a standing wave. (Source: botheredbybees)

BBQ, as we all know, is short for bar-be-que. But whatever that means is up for debate. I doubt I need define a soliton, but just in case you tuned in from a fermion universe, a soliton is a collection of bosonic particles in an equilibrium configuration, neither gaining or losing bosons. Solitons comprise constituents which are held together by weak forces and is envisioned as more or less, you guessed it, as a standing wave or a blob.

You probably remember from advanced statistical mechanics that there are five elementary bosons and my ‘Q-Balls use all five. (No quarks or leptons are required.) They are, in no apparent order:

  1. the gluon (also called gluten) is the elastic force that allows the ‘Q-Balls to expand during photonic irradiation and condense during cooling without disintegrating into fermions,
  2. the weak force Z (representing zweibel (DE) or in English: onion),
  3. the weak force W (it represents the energy of cabbage; we’re not sure why ‘W’ but then cabbage is a bit of a mystery, isn’t it?),
  4. the photon (this is how we cook the ‘Q-Balls for maximum enjoyment, and finally,
  5. the Higgs bosons, sometimes called the “god particle,” which due to a misspelling by an editor was actually supposed to be Pig’s bosons, often served with BBQ sauce. [Ed. it has recently been proposed that there are five different bosons of this type: 1) pork butt, 2) back ribs, 3) shoulder, 4) shank, and 5) bacon. Sausage is actually a composite boson made by a collision of any Higg's boson with the strange quark, which itself is a fermion. Other physicists call the research into question. You don't have to own a particle accelerator to own your very own boson.]

Although physicists can only theorize about the Q-Ball, you can easily make a ‘Q-Ball at home. The idea came to me because in Lincoln, Nebraska a similar construct, called a Runza, is available from fast-food chain restaurants throughout the city. Let me point out, and I make no apologies here, that a Runza is filled with fermions, not bosons, and therefor must comply with the Pauli Exclusion Principle (the theory states that it is impossible for one to be in the same room with a television playing Pauly Shore’s Bio-Dome). Fermions, remember, can only occupy one quantum state at a time. Thus, eating a Runza means that all other quanta cannot co-exist in your digestive tract, hence the rapid escape of other waves and particles. The name is a reference to this effect.

Wikipedia provides instructions on how to construct a Q-Ball, but since my calculus is rusty, I suggest you try my method instead. I think you will find that ‘Q-Balls illicit a much more sympathetic response from one’s body since the bosons can co-occupy the same quanta as the colon. Add to this the fact that left-handed fermions can interact with the W force (remember: the cabbage), so at least for southpaw fermions, eating ‘Q-Balls should have no adverse effect on digestion. Right-handed antifermions should have no problems either; right-handed leptons should take a Tums.

‘Q-Balls

Ingredients for 4 Blobs

  • 1 cup shredded cabbage
  • 1 med. onion, slivered
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 tbsp canola oil
  • 1 1/2 cups cooked, shredded pork BBQ (see below)
  • 1 lb of ready-made pizza dough

For the Shredded Pork

  • 3-4 lb pork butt
  • 1 onion, sliced
  • 6 cloves
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2 teas of peppercorns, cracked
  • 1 tbsp cumin, ground
  • 2 whole, dried ancho chilis
  • 1 12 0z bottle of rauchbier (smoked beer)
  • 1/3 cup your favorite BBQ sauce

Method

Place the pork, onion, spices and beer into the slow cooker. Cooked on low for 7-10 hours until pork falls apart on touch. Cool, remove pork to a plate. Sieve the liquid, discarding the cooked onions and spices and reserving the liquid. Place 1/2 cup of the reserved pork liquid in a small pan and cook with the BBQ sauce until reduced to a thick sauce. Shred the pork and add to the sauce, coating evenly. Correct for acidity, sweetness, and seasoning with cider vinegar, brown sugar, and salt & pepper, respectively. Set aside.

Meanwhile saute the shredded cabbage and onions with the oil. Add the garlic 5 minutes later. Cook the mixture down until limp and translucent. Cool, then combine with 1 1/2 cups of the shredded pork to complete the filling.

The 'Q-Ball

Divide the dough into four pieces. Using your hands or a rolling pin, make a 5-inch circle of one piece and place 1/4 of the pork cabbage mixture in the middle. Bring the sides of the dough up and across, sealing with the opposite side to make a leakproof bundle. (If it doesn’t stay altogether it can’t be a soliton.) Repeat for the remaining ingredients. Place apart from one another on a greased pan and allow to site in a warm place for 30 minutes to begin to rise again. Bake at 400ºF until the crust is golden and firm, approximately 25 minutes.

These are so good, they could win the Nobel Piece (sic) Prize. Enjoy! TPJ

Potato Leek Soup with Gueuze

My first trip to Belgium was the wettest September on record, raining 12 of my first 14 days. I was traveling by bicycle and camping most nights. I will never forget the smell of the sodden countryside and the diesel exhaust that hung heavily in the damp air.

I still remember the dour, down-turned faces of women shopping at the weekly markets while I picked out my potatoes, leeks, and lardons. Doesn’t sound like much of a vacation, you’re thinking. True, not for anyone but the foolhardy. Then again, you probably didn’t resuscitate yourself from the chill by making potato and leek soup on your camp stove.

As the cooler fall days approach, what better way to warm up than with this savory and rich soup. It calls for gueuze, an un-fruited sour wheat beer from Belgium. Gueuze, loosely pronounced ‘ghuhz,’ is typically a blend of plain lambic beers of varying ages. A blend of 1-, 2-, and 3-year old lambics is fairly common. The beer is very lively in the bottle and has a pungent characteristic aroma comprising lactic acid, horse blanket, sulfur compounds, and tropical fruit.

Potato and Leek Soup with Gueuze

Ingredients

  • 4 ea    leeks, med to lg size
  • 2 lb    russet potatoes
  • 1/4 cup    lardons, lean salt pork, ham, salt-cured, not smoked
  • 1/2 cup    unsalted butter, divided
  • 1 1/2 cups    gueuze (vintage lambic blend), 325-355 ml bottle
  • 2 ea    bay leaves
  • 1 teasp    sea salt
  • 1/2 teasp    ground white pepper
  • 1 cup    heavy cream
  • 1 sprig    thyme
  • 1 teasp    chives, fresh

Method

Prepare the leeks by trimming and discarding the roots and most of the green tops, rinsing to remove all grit, and chopping finely into 1/4″ pieces. Divide leeks evenly, reserving one half. Peel potatoes and dice into 1/2″ cubes; reserve under water in a large bowl to avoid browning.

In a 4 qt saucepan, heat 3 qts water to boiling. In a separate large soup pot of at least 6 qt capacity, melt 1/4 cup of butter and slowly heat the lardons to render their fat. Avoid overly darkening the lardons. Remove the lardons with a slotted spoon, drain on paper towels, and reserve. Add half of the chopped leeks to the butter and cook on medium heat until soft, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to avoid browning. Deglaze with the bottle of gueuze. Drain the potatoes and add to the pot. Add the boiling water, bay leaf, salt and white pepper. Simmer for at least 30 minutes, until the potatoes are falling apart and the leeks are very tender.

While the soup is cooking, sauté the reserved leeks in the remaining butter until soft, about 10 minutes. Set aside.

Back to the soup, remove and discard the bay leaves, then carefully purée the hot soup in a blender in batches until smooth. You may have to jockey pots to accomplish this, but you should end up with the puréed soup and the sautéed leeks in the same pot. Taste for seasoning and correct salt and pepper if needed. If the soup is too thin, reduce with constant stirring until consistency is that of a thick sauce. Stir in the cooked lardons, cream, and thyme. Heat soup through and serve immediately with chopped chives as a garnish.

I know I’ll be making this soup again soon. Hope you will try it, as well. Cheers. TPJ

Pears Poached in Cherry Lambic

Just returning home from the Great American Beer Festival I had to know: Were my pears ripened? If you’ve ever grown a garden or fruit trees you know the anxiety that comes with travel. Did the birds/rabbits/squirrels/deer get them? Was there a hailstorm or a frost? Is all well in my little Eden?

And… there they were, just yellowing, huge, heavy, aromatic, sweet. This calls for something special, I thought – poached pears in kriek!

Cheery, cherry lambic, commonly called kriek (Ned.) or cherise (Fr.) is one of the most wonderful and surprising of wheat beers. Fruit lambics are pleasingly lactic-sour, opulently fruity, and may range in yeast-driven flavors from straight-ahead sweet-tart to farmhouse funky. Because of their ingredients and extended aging lambics have lost all trace of hop aroma and bitterness. They showcase complex expressions of wild yeasts and souring bacteria, and yet they retain a certain amount of mouthfeel from the 30-40 percent raw wheat used in the grist. Many have characterized lambics as the most wine-like of beers, but I’m confident most oenophiles would balk at their first taste of a true lambic.

It is this very wine-like aspect that inspired me to take the traditional dessert of pears poached in wine and retool it for lambic. Among the lambics, kriek is closest to the colors and flavors of red wine. In fact, after several years of aging, the cherries become less distinct; the brew takes on a dark fruit melange and effervescence that might be similar to a pinot noir wine cooler.

Poached Pears in Kriek!

Ingredients for 8 Servings

  • 8 ea    Bosc pears, sub. Bartlett or Anjou
  • 4 ea    star anise
  • 1 ea    orange, juiced
  • 1 cup    sugar
  • 1 bottle    kriek, 750 ml
  • 1 cup    whipping cream
  • 3 tbsp    orange liqueur or cognac
  • 3 tbsp    powdered sugar, divided
  • 8 ea    mint leaves
  • 8 or 16 ea    almond cookies

Method

Advance Preparation. In a pan large enough to hold all of the pears laying on their sides (e.g. 4-quart saucepan), combine whole star anise, juice of orange, sugar, and kriek. Heat the mixture over medium heat to dissolve sugar and infuse spice. Keep warm.

While the kriek mixture is heating, peel the pears from top to bottom leaving alternating strips of peel attached to create a striped effect. Leave the stem intact. Trim the bottom slightly so pears will stand upright. Place pears on their sides in the warm kriek mixture, cover, and simmer for 30-40 minutes, turning the pears halfway through and basting frequently. Pears are done when still firm and a sharp knife penetrates readily. Remove the pears and set them upright in a rimmed dish to cool.

Reduce remaining poaching liquid over medium heat until the consistency of a light syrup, to about 2/3 cup, then strain to remove solids.  Cover and refrigerate pears and sauce separately until serving (up to 2 days).

Assembly. Whip the cream in a cold, clean stainless bowl until soft peak stage. Add the liqueur and 1 tablespoon of the powdered sugar and whip until stiff peaks form. Place a pear on each serving plate, drizzle 2-3 teaspoons of sauce on and around each pear. Using the tip of a toothpick, make a small hole in the pear right at the stem and push the stem of a mint leaf into the hole. Place or pipe a dollop of whipped cream beside the pear, dust with powdered sugar and arrange one or two almond cookies on the plate.

There’s an old saying in restaurants, that people always remember the dessert. If you take the time to prepare this fabulous fall treat for your friends or family, trust me, they will remember it! Cheers! TPJ

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