Thursday, January 21, 2010

Mushroom Crostini, Bronzini with Olives, Pine Nut Pilaf, Sauted Broccoli Rabe

"Fish heads,

fish heads,

roly-poly fish heads...

I can't believe it, but this was my first time cooking whole fish. Why? I don't know. Don't be afraid, people--it's actually far more difficult to screw up than a filet.

First, though, we had some mushroom crostini. I had some mushrooms leftover from the veal packets, and I had bought a baguette because my Dad insists that bread is a necessary part of a nice dinner, and we don't have it often enough. Especially when the meal involves any kind of sauce, he berates me for not providing bread. Just kidding! He doesn't berate me. He chides me. Kidding!
I also had a leftover leek from the night before, so it was sliced and suteed in a bit of olive oil. The mushrooms were then added, and when they were tender and brown, some creme fraiche and white wine were added. The mushrooms were spooned on top of some baguette slices and topped with minced chives.

Mario Batali's recipe calls for snapper, but the whole snapper at Whole Foods was a whopping 5 pounds. We certainly didn't need that much fish, and the smaller rainbow snapper did not look too impressively fresh. I usually have no qualms about substituting one fish for another if they're similar fish, and I figured that this was an Italian dish, and bronzino are a European fish that have long been very popular in Italy. They're becoming more well known (trendy) on our shores, and I have been wanting to try them.

I just looked them up to make sure they are what I thought they are, though, and I learned that they're being overfished, and there's talk about passing legislation to conserve them. Oops. My bad. Hopefully they were farm raised.

In order to cook our particular specimens of this dimishing species, Hunter and I first prepared the mis en place, which consisted of rinsed capers, diced olives, white wine, lemon zest, lemon juice, and sliced lemons. Holy crap that's a lot of lemons. That's why you should always read the whole recipe before attempting to make it, or even shop for it. Luckily, Whole Foods had Meyer lemons at a great price, so I had bought a lot of them.

This was also fortuitous because I tend to not like recipes that contain a lot (or sometimes even a little bit) of lemon. I almost always use less lemon than a recipe calls for because I find that a tiny bit can overwhelm an entire dish.

For example, I once made a pea and prosciutto risotto that called for something like a tablespoon of lemon zest. This sounded crazy to me, so I used less that a teaspoon. Unfortunately, even that amount overpowered that dish to the extent that I could taste almost nothing else.

So, like I said, the Meyer lemons really came in handy because Meyer lemons tend to be sweeter and less acidic than normal lemons. The sauce ended up having the perfect amount of lemon, which complimented the fish, olives and capers without competing with them. I'm not sure if I would have liked this without Meyer lemons, so if I make it again, it will certainly be when these sweet little lemons are in season.

After the mis en place was ready, the fish were scored on both sides, tossed in flour, and seasoned with salt and pepper.

I heated some oil in a saute pan until it was smoking, and added the fish.

This is the point where Hunter reminded me that once that stupid #$*% electric stove finally gets hot, it gets really hot. Well, you need high heat to pan-sear stuff, right? It's fine. So after the fish got a nice golden...whoops, I mean blackened sear, they were flipped over, the rest of the ingredients were added, and the whole thing went into a 450 degree oven for 10 minutes. Okay, Hunter. You can say, 'I told you so.' I'm getting used to hearing that.

While the fish was cooking, we made the rice pilaf by toasting some jasmine rice, adding too little water, and adding toasted pine nuts and diced chives when I thought it was finished.

I guess I learned the hard way that if you toast the rice first, you may need to add extra water. I should also know by now that if the rice looks done, I still need to taste it. At least I didn't burn the pine nuts, though.

I am a master when it comes to pine nut burning. No matter what toasting method I'm employing, I will manage to burn those nuts. And the worst part is that while they're browning, I'll start thinking to myself, 'Hmmm. What's that smell?' Finally when it starts to smell burnt and not just delicious, I remember the expensive pine nuts in the toaster oven, convection oven, or skillet. The last time I made pesto, after the third time that Nick heard "F***" come from the kitchen, he offered to toast the pine nuts for me.

So when I said aloud at my Dad's house, "What's that smell?" and then actually remembered that there were pine nuts in the toaster oven, I was so proud of myself. So the pine nuts were quite delicious with the fish, and almost made up for the fact that the rice was dry and I didn't use enough chives.

I had thought that a hearty green vegetable would be quite nice with the tart and salty flavors of the fish, so I chose broccoli rabe, also known as rapini. It seemed very Italian, and I rarely get to eat it because Nick doesn't like it. I just love how you can take the whole bunch, roughly chop it up, and throw it in a pot or skillet that has some lightly browned garlic and some olive oil in it. It then cooks with a minimum of observation or fussing required. At some point you can throw in some white wine, and finish it with some lemon juice.

Well, every bunch of broccoli rabe differs, and this one happened to be very bitter. I liked it but couldn't finish my portion, and Hunter didn't care for it. It was good the next day, though, and I might eat the last tiny bit of leftovers with some feta or goat cheese.

Nick and I make a pizza that's brushed with garlic oil, topped with caramelized onions and broccoli rabe, and finished with lemon and goat cheese. It's delicious, and all that broccoli rabe is just packed with vitamins A, C, and K, as well as potassium, calcium, and iron.

So I mentioned that the lemon, caper and olive sauce was nicely balanced and not too lemony, but how did the fish taste? Well, the flavor was delicious and the texture was incredibly moist. The fish was flaky but a bit firm at the same time. This may be thanks to the fact that it was cooked whole, as the cartilaginous bones purportedly kind of melt into the flesh a bit, and the resulting gelatin contributes to the texture of fish cooked in this manner.

And remember that I mentioned that it's a lot harder to mess up a whole fish than a filet? It's true! The charred bits on the bronzino tasted okay, and the texture didn't suffer. Had I cooked a filet so indelicately, though, it would have been a mess.

While the bones were in some ways advantageous, they were some tricky little buggers. It seems that Bronzino are some bony, bony fish, and the more wicked of those bones tend to come loose from the spine. It is therefore not what I would call 'date food,' as you end up picking stuff out of your mouth and putting it on the edge of your plate.

Worse, though, was the fact that I was experiencing recurring visions of one of my family members choking with horrendous and catastrophic results. I was sitting there imagining how I would feel guilty for the rest of my life, and I may never be able to cook anything ever again. A bit melodramatic, perhaps, but these bones were kind of scary.

Luckily, though, no one even came close to having one of those wickedly curved rib bones stuck in their throats or digestive tracts. When the edible parts of the fish had been decimated, Hunter and I turned our attention to the fish's eyeballs. I tried to convince Hunter that many cultures consider the eyes a delicacy, and he should therefore try one. I believe that this is actually true, but it's a lot like the days when I would get Hunter to eat the mud pies that we made in the garden. Sorry about that, bro.

I like how the vitreous humor is leaking out of this one.

No go. Hunter will attempt to eat anything, as long as it's raw. This has at times had very amusing results, but the cooked fish eyeballs were not happening. We did eat the cheeks because these are in many cultures truly considered the best part of the fish, but our little fishies were a bit to small to really get a sense of the taste or texture of the cheeks.

I have some lemons left over, so I believe I'll make a lemon tart, and make some candied lemon peels with the leavings. Meyer lemons actually have edible skins, so they might make some particularly nice candied peels. Or they might just fall apart. We'll see.

Mushroom Crostini

  • A baguette, cut on a bias into 1/2 inch thick slices
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 leek, rinsed well and white and light green parts thinly sliced crosswise
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 8 ounces mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine
  • 2 tablespoons creme fraiche or heavy cream
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh chives

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat until it shimmers. Add the leek and a pinch of salt and sauté until tender, about 6 minutes. Add the mushrooms and increase the heat to medium-high. The mushrooms will become tender and release their juices. Add a bit of salt. Cook the mushrooms longer, and the juices begin to evaporate and the mushrooms turn golden brown, which is the desired stage of doneness; this will take about 8-13 minutes.

Increase the heat to high and add the white wine. Simmer until evaporated. Remove from the heat and stir in the creme fraiche or heavy cream. Season to taste with freshly ground black pepper, and more salt if necessary.

Top each of the crostini slices with about 2 tablespoons of the mushroom mixture. Garnish with chives and serve.

Bronzini with Olives
(Adapted from Molto Italiano)

  • 3 one-pound whole bronzini
  • Flour for dredging
  • 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup calamata olives, pitted and coarsely chopped
  • 3 tablespoons capers, rinsed
  • 5 Meyer lemons, zested and segmented
  • Juice of 3 lemons
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • About 1/4 cup best-quality extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • Coarse sea salt

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
With a sharp knife, score the bronzini twice on each side.  Dredge the fish in the flour and shake off any excess. In a 14-inch oven-proof sauté pan or a flameproof roasting pan, heat the 6 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat until just smoking.

Place the fish in the pan and cook until golden brown on the first side. Carefully turn the fish and add the olives, capers, lemon zest, lemon segments, juice, and wine. Place the pan in the oven and roast for about 10 minutes, until the fish is just cooked through. Allow the fish to rest for 5 minutes.

If you like, you can fillet each fish, or serve them while. Drizzle each serving with the pan juices and a couple tablespoons of the excellent olive oil. Sprinkle with parsley and salt and serve.

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