Lobster off the Hook

Lobster with Vanilla-Blueberry-Mascarpone Ravioli, Asparagus and Three Sauces

Here it is, the massive, freaky effort of molecular gastronomy to be made by the adventurous chef or dreamed about by armchair cooks. Molecular gastronomy? you wonder.

Well, to be clear, the meaning of this term has mutated significantly in the 20 years since its introduction. It can mean anything from the use of industrial gels to create new textures to the abandonment of classical cooking techniques to using biochemistry to explain or predict interesting aroma synergies between disparate foods.

I like Harold McGee‘s definition the best. He calls molecular gastronomy the scientific study of deliciousness. McGee, along with Elizabeth Cawdry Thomas (who ran a SF Bay-area cooking school) and Nicholas Kurti (an Oxford physicist with a passion for cooking), are generally considered the founders of the movement. They presented their first workshop in Erice, Sicily in 1992.

It is well-known that lobster and vanilla are sympathetic flavors. Blueberry and vanilla also work well together. As it so happens, on a desert hike long, long ago, the idea popped into my head that all three could be combined in the same dish. Sort of the mathematical distributive property applied to flavors. But it took me until this year to accomplish the dish.

From the perspective of molecular gastronomy, foods that complement each other often contain similar aroma and flavor compounds. Blueberry’s fruitiness comes from esters like 3-isopropyl-butyrate and its woodsy note from benzaldehyde. Vanillin, the principal flavor compound in vanilla beans, is 4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde. Real vanilla carries with it anther 170 flavor compounds, many of which are also esters. Our body detects similar chemical structures in receptors specific for certain molecular configurations. You can read a primer here.

The real question is why do vanilla and lobster pair well. A study of lobster tail meat by gas chromatography identified 47 aroma/flavor compounds. Among the major constituents were 3-methylbutanal (chocolate, malty) and 2,3-butanedione (buttery). You can see that these are vanilla-compatible flavors.

Due to the complexities of this recipe, I ask your indulgence in not writing out the recipes for all the components and sauces. Instead, I’d rather describe the dish to you, show you a picture, and call it quits for today. Okay?

Lobster with Vanilla-Blueberry-Mascarpone Ravioli, Asparagus and Three Sauces

Since one of the sauces is like a bisque made from the lobster carcass, you have to poach the lobster first, reserving the shelled meat for the finish. There were plenty of good one to two-pound lobbies available. After poaching, I cooled the lobster, removed the claw, thigh (?), and tail meat, and kept it away from Dave’s cats.

The shell and lesser legs were broken up and a salmony-colored sauce was prepared with shallots, butter, saffron, a tomato, a shot of cognac, cream, tarragon, salt and crushed white pepper. The sauce was sieved and kept warm for assembly.

The second sauce was for dressing the asparagus spears. It was a reduction of blueberries and pinot noir with some balsamic vinegar added. The third sauce was based on a beurre blanc and had to be made right at the end.

Next I put together the blueberry vanilla ravioli. Most people will opt for using wonton wrappers, but if you have an Atlas pasta machine as I do, you really should roll your own. The filling was equal parts of mascarpone (sweet Italian-style cream cheese) and ricotta. I found a brand of ricotta – Calabro – with no extra additives and it was worth the few extra cents! Supple and buttery like my homemade ricotta. To this I added an egg yolk, the seeds scraped from a Tahitian vanilla bean, and a pinch each of salt and white pepper. After dispensing the mixture onto the pasta dough I added a fingerful of wild blueberries from Maine. The reserved egg white helped stick the top and bottom layers of pasta together.

Pulling it all together. I boiled water for the ravioli and the asparagus. While those were coming up to heat I began the third sauce, a butter sauce called beurre nantais after the French city of Nantes. White wine (I used the delicious Montevina sauvignon blanc) and white wine vinegar are reduced with shallots until you are left with a sticky, acidic mess. A couple tablespoons of cream are stirred in just before it dries out. Finally butter, lots of it, is whisked in gradually. The result is a luscious off-white, airy sauce. It must be served right away.

Dropping the ravioli and asparagus into their respective water, I plated onto warmed plates by first making a spider web with the lobster sauce and the beurre nantais. The asparagus was laid out like spokes radiating from the center of the plate and the ravioli arranged on top, in the center. The reserved lobster meat, momentarily reheated in a little melted butter, was placed onto the ravioli and the blueberry reduction sauce drizzled around and over the asparagus tips. A few stray blueberries and chopped tarragon completed the presentation.

Experiments in the science of deliciousness.

The Feast of the Seven Fishes 2010 – Final Tally

  • 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.
  • No. 3 – PBR and Caviar (Russian-White Trash Fusion) Dine like a rock star, served with ice-cold cheap beer.
  • No. 2 – Cedar Plank Salmon (Nouvelle Native American) First, cut down a cedar tree…
  • No. 1 – Lobster with Vanilla-Blueberry-Mascarpone Ravioli, Asparagus and Three Sauces – A massive, freaky effort to be made by the adventurous chef or dreamed about by armchair cooks.

Cheers and Happy Holidays! TPJ

[Ed. TPJ has been under the weather, literally and figuratively – hence the delay. The dish was prepared before Christmas, in case it matters. Many thanks to Neighbor Dave for kitchen privileges and reader BR for suggesting the Seven Fishes thread.]

Cedar Plank Salmon with Chanterelles

Eastern Red Cedar - handsome, fragrant wood - killer of apple trees. (Source: botit.botany.wisc.edu)

While immersed in recipe selection for my Feast of the Seven Fishes I had the opportunity to cut down three “cedar” trees (Juniperus virginiana) for my neighbor Deb. The trees provided me with some aromatic firewood for future seasons. Felling them also planted the seed for the enclosed recipe, number 6 out of 7 in my countdown for holiday season fish dishes.

The trees had been planted there in the 1960s by Barnacle Bob, the former owner, and were now tall enough to block much of the light on that side of Deb’s house. Old crusty told me a cockamamie tale about how he “rescued” these three trees from NYC’s Central Park. Maybe he did, maybe not. Fact remains, this locale is within the natural range of the specie, and they could well have arrived by most any other natural means.

I was delighted to cut these trees down, since they harbor an apple-damaging blight called cedar-apple rust (Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginianae) and are dangerously close to my orchard. In the springtime, when the apples are leafing out, spores from growths on the cedar tree travel to nearby apples trees and disturb both leaf development and later, the fruit. Since I continue against all odds to attempt an organic orchard, this is one of the more bizarre steps I’ve yet to take.

As I suspected, when I began cutting into the wood, I noticed its perfumed, purple-stained heartwood. This was the wood made into hope chests and closets. It’s commonly called Eastern Red Cedar, but really a juniper. It was smelling that fragrant wood that caused plank salmon to fall on my conscious thoughts. I’ve often cooked this way, usually on a barbecue and usually with riven sheets of Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata) that have been first soaked in water.

Cooking salmon on planks combines grilling and smoking techniques. (Source: greatlakesgrilling.com)

Some say it is likely that plank cooking was in use by Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest long before colonists arrived. Author Hilary Stewart reports how some coastal tribes called themselves “people of the cedars.” Their entire culture revolved around the myriad uses of the tree. Others contend that the technique is Scandinavian in origin. To me, it doesn’t seem worth arguing; many cultures would have used similar methods when there was an absence of pottery or metal cookery. In earlier times, wood smoke could add flavor when there were few imported spices or herbs.

Of course those earlier peoples ate salmon. I imagine that a fish from the Pacific Northwest would be most appropriate and I am particularly fond of sockeye. It’s flesh is a deep red-orange tone with the finest grain and texture of any salmon. It possesses an earthy, piny note that works well with cedar.

I prefer salmon from a sustainable wild fishery to avoid perpetuating the pesticides and dyes commonly used in “grocery store salmon.” Wild salmon fisheries are threatened by a range of issues, including pollution from cities and riverside fish farms, over-harvesting, and migration-interrupting dams. The ethical choice of “what’s for dinner?” is not without consequence. The most vocal proponent of restoring salmon waters in the lower 48 states is Save Our Wild Salmon, and I encourage you to see what they’re up to. This recent video release from Skip Armstrong sums up one of the many watersheds being contested. Ultimately I end up purchasing far less salmon than my love for it would otherwise dictate.

As for the other ingredients, you will see that there is an undertone of pine-scented ingredients. I roasted the potatoes with sage, sautéed the squash with thyme, and used rosemary in the balsamic reduction. I served the Scots pine ale Alba to top off my homage to an evergreen forest.

A feast of simple foods infused with various evergreen aromas.

Cedar Plank Salmon with Chanterelles

Ingredients for Two

Time to Prepare: 60 min

  • a cedar plank 4×8 in, minimum (you may have to cut down a cedar tree)
  • 10-12 oz salmon fillet
  • 1 teas olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1/2 teas shallots, minced
  • salt and white pepper
  • 2/3 c high quality balsamic vinegar
  • 1/2 c pomegranate juice
  • 1 tbsp brown sugar
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 spring fresh rosemary
  • 3 medium red potatoes
  • 2 teas olive oil
  • 6 leaves fresh sage
  • salt and black pepper
  • 3 oz fresh chanterelle mushrooms
  • 1 teas butter
  • 1 small zucchini
  • 1 small summer (yellow) squash
  • 1 teas butter
  • 1 spring fresh thyme
  • salt and black pepper

Preparation

If the cedar plank is dry, soak in lightly salted water for 30 minutes. Place the salmon skin side down onto the plank, coat lightly with olive oil, and season with garlic, shallot, salt & pepper. Set aside in a cool place.

In a small saucepan, combine the vinegar, juice, sugar, garlic, and rosemary. Bring to a low boil then lower the heat to slowly reduce. While this is taking on the consistency of honey, carry on with other preparations.

In just a few minutes of cooking the cedar aromas penetrate the salmon and the fish cooks to a delicate state.

Slice the red potatoes about 1/4 inch thick with the skins on. Brush with oil and season with sage, salt & pepper. Arrange in a shallow pan and roast in the oven at 450 deg for about 10 minutes, turning once. When you open the door to turn the potatoes, place the entire plank and salmon into the oven. While these two items are finishing you have about five minutes for the veggies.

Set two small skillets on the heat. In one cook the squash in a tad of butter, seasoning with thyme, salt & pepper. The squash can be cut into 1/4 inch thick rounds or into sticks. In the other you will simply cook the chanterelles in a little butter. Cook the mushrooms al dente, removing them before they wither and go flat.

Onto warmed plates arrange the sliced potatoes. Remove the salmon from the plank and place a portion onto the potatoes. Plate the squash and chanterelles beside the potato/salmon, then drizzle the balsamic reduction around the plate and onto the salmon and potatoes. Serve with a piny, resinous beer like Alba, Racer 5 IPA, Russian River’s Pliny the Elder, or most any beer from Southern California’s Green Flash Brewing Company. Wine drinkers can go with the surprising Brut Rosé from Roederer Estate (thanks Otto for the suggestion), or a pinot noir from Oregon’s southwest corner.

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.
  • No. 3 – PBR and Caviar (Russian-White Trash Fusion) Dine like a rock star, served with ice-cold cheap beer.
  • No. 2 – Cedar Plank Salmon – (Nouvelle Native American) First, cut down a cedar tree…

Coming soon:

  • No. 1 – Lobster with Vanilla-Blueberry-Mascarpone Ravioli, Asparagus and Three Sauces – A massive, freaky effort to be made by the adventurous chef or dreamed about by armchair cooks.

Life is to be enjoyed and enjoyment is all the more savory if toil is required! TPJ

PBR and Caviar

Snack out like a rock star with affordable and authentic caviar. Wash it down with a can of beer!

It’s time for recipe number 3 of 7 in my countdown for the Feast of the Seven Fishes. If you’re checking your calendar you’ll realize that we still need two more recipes by Christmas. I will deliver on that, but it was challenging to find sustainably harvested sturgeon caviar for this dish.

Caviar (salted fish roe) is best served entirely by itself or with simple accompaniments that soften the saltiness without overshadowing the caviar taste. These sides can include blinis (small pancakes) or toast points, sour cream, and seived, hard-cooked egg. Some people go as far as to include capers, cornichons, lemon, red onion, pepper or herbs. The choice is yours, but be forewarned about criticism from caviar snobs. In truth, accompaniments of all sorts have been served with caviar for centuries.

Caviar’s flavor can range from subtly fishy to buttery or nutty, herbal, iodiney, and in some cases, very fishy. The palate development can be short or long. It is always a bit salty, although modern producers have managed to get the salt down below 3.5 percent. For the amount you will consume, this is less total salt than in many American meals.

Caviar also has a texture that contradicts its apparent soft look. Smaller grains have an almost poppy seed quality, while the large salmon roe are more surprising. You will experience how the roe explodes in the mouth releasing its nuanced flavors. Suffice to say, caviar may not be to everyone’s liking, but those who like it generally look forward to their next chance to taste it. And there may be another reason to eat caviar. As Brillat-Savarin wrote in his Physiologie du Gout:

…unanimous observations have demonstrated that it acts strongly on genetics, and awakens in both sexes the instinct of reproduction.

The shovelnose sturgeon, rebranded as the more appetizing hackelback sturgeon, plies the waters of the Mississippi River. Hackelback is an affordable caviar that compares favorably with Russian Sevruga. (Source: http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/)

What might be called “true” or “authentic” caviar is obtained exclusively from the sturgeon, among which there are many species. Generally the larger and lighter in color the grains, the more highly valued the caviar. However with salmonid roe (derived from various salmon or trout species) the rule is reversed, whereas the darker, smaller eggs are considered higher in quality.

A third group of fish roe, that of the lumpfish, is more of a novelty and better suited as a garnish, if you even purchase it at all. It is the cheapest of all roe and is often dyed into deep colors and may have preservatives added.

Current perceptions of caviar derive from a complicated history of royal families, issues of rarity among certain types, and taste preferences of disparate cultures. Hanging on to these traditions is one reason that sturgeons in the wild are on endangered species lists around the globe. So a new caviar ethic is in order, one in which you know where your caviar originated, i.e., that it came from a sustainable fishery (nowadays often a fish farm).

Considering that caviar was once so common it was served in Colonial American taverns instead of pretzels or peanuts, it seems fitting to pair it today with the quintessential blue collar beer: Pabst Blue Ribbon – PBR. This notion should agree even with those who hold conservative views about what to drink with caviar, seeing as ice cold vodka or frosty Champagne are traditional. I’ve simply substituted another very cold, bland drink. Do you like the irony of this suggestion as much as I do?

PBR and Caviar

Ingredients for Four

Time to Prepare: 30 min

  • 4 slices firm white bread
  • 2 tbls sour cream
  • 1 oz caviar (Hackelback Sturgeon,$30 at Whole Foods)
  • 1 hard-cooked egg, shelled and pushed through a sieve
  • 2 teas chopped chives
  • 4 cans cheap American lager packed in an ice bath

Preparation

Remove the caviar from the fridge, allowing it to warm up while making the toast. Toast the bread to medium toast, cut off the crusts, and cut each into four triangular toast-ettes. Place the sieved egg in the middle of the plate. Arrange the toast around the egg. Carefully place a dollop of sour cream on each piece of toast. The amount you want is about 3/4 teaspoon and should be equal to the amount of caviar you will place on top. Using a slim, non-metallic implement (I used the handle of a plastic spoon), place a wad of caviar on each bit of sour cream. The eggs stick together pretty well, so this is easier than it sounds. Sprinkle the chopped chives around the edge of the plate. Provide a knife for people to place egg on their morsel, if they so choose.

Serve immediately with very cold bland beer!

Get it on with caviar this Holiday season.

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

On deck:

  • No. 2 – Cedar Plank Salmon – (Nouvelle Native American) First, cut down a cedar tree…
  • No. 1 – Lobster with Vanilla-Blueberry-Mascarpone Ravioli, Asparagus and Three Sauces – A massive, freaky effort to be made by the adventurous chef or dreamed about by armchair cooks.

More coming at you! TPJ

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