Monday, April 27, 2009

Shrimp Scampi, Hock-style

The word "scampi" commonly refers to an Italian-American shrimp dish that is served with pasta, usually linguine. One can usually find some variation of this dish in most restaurants. In most popular applications, "scampi" also refers to a method of preparation and the shrimp can sometimes be substituted with chicken. I've had customers at the restaurant ask for chicken scampi instead of the regular shrimp scampi that we serve. Scampi dishes are almost always made up of ingredients like white wine, garlic butter and lemon juice.

For this shrimp scampi dish, I chose to use whole shrimp with the shell and head still intact. The shrimp that you find in most grocery stores are P&D, an industry term that stands for "peeled and de-veined." Shrimp like the ones I have here are actually more expensive but inherently more delicious! The natural flavor of the shrimp is derived mainly from the head and the shell. Leaving them on while cooking adds plenty of flavor to your dishes.

Before we start, let's cook the pasta first--we are using linguine. Bring a pot of salted water to boil and add the pasta. Keep stirring the pasta so that it would not clump up and stick together. The pasta is done when there is just a little crunch in the center when you bite on it. This is also known as "al dente."

Instead of sautéeing the shrimp like one would normally do, I poach them in garlic butter, fresh lemon juice and dry white wine. For extra flavoring, I added pureed basil to the poaching liquid. Shrimp cook quickly and don't really need high heat. A slow poaching approach will infuse a lot of the lemon, butter and garlic flavor into the shrimp and vice-versa--the succulent flavor of the shrimp will also flow into the poaching medium. When the shrimp turn bright red or orange (take your pick), they are cooked. Remove them from the pan and you can add vegetables like asparagus and carrots, which is what I did here. Cook them for a little while and then add the cooked linguine. Sauté the pasta with the vegetables and make sure that everything gets tossed properly. Add the shrimp last to heat them up and you are all set to serve. For garnishing, sprinkle some finely chopped parsley and lemon rind on top of the dish.

Jamaican Jerk Chicken with a Fruit Salad

Alright, cue Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds": "Don't worry about a thing....'Cause every little thing's gonna be all right."

It's sunny out and the weather's perfect for a taste of the Caribbean islands--specifically Jamaican jerk style cooking, which uses a special blend of hot spices. Typically, Jamaican jerk spice is made up of ingredients like allspice, peppers, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, thyme and garlic. Admittedly, this is a strong blend of spices but believe me, it is absolutely delicious! Jerk seasoning can be applied to various proteins like poultry, fish, beef, pork or even vegetables, depending on one's taste and preference. The most common and popular application of jerk seasoning is on chicken and is best cooked over a charcoal grill that is flavored with pimento wood. If you are thinking about using fish, try to use it on hardier, grillable fish like mahi-mahi, swordfish or wahoo (or "ono" in Hawaiian) and not flaky white fish like haddock or flounder. Also, taste-wise, jerk seasoning is not very good on those white fish.

Anyway, you can easily obtain jerk seasoning from your local grocery store's spice rack. All you need to do after that is to marinade the chicken with some oil and jerk seasoning. Do not add salt because the seasoning is already pretty salty. Leave the marinated chicken in your refrigerator for a couple of hours in order to permeate the flavor of the seasoning into the meat. For this application, I use wooden skewers to hold the meat and vegetables in place while grilling. It also looks kinda cool when you serve it to your guests this way! One thing to note is to soak the wooden skewers in water for a few hours before using them, so that they would not catch on fire on the grill. For vegetables, I would recommend red onions, zucchini and summer squash, as they are perfect for grilling. Some people might also like grilled tomatoes and potatoes as well. Just remember to cut them thick and oil and season them before grilling. For good measure, I also grilled some fresh pineapple slices as well.

As a side dish to the jerk chicken and also in keeping with the island theme, I added a fruit salad that is made up of spring mix as the leafy vegetable, red onions, fresh pineapple, strawberries, blackberries, peaches and mandarin oranges. The sweetness of the fruits balance out the tartness of the balsamic vinaigrette that I used on this salad.

Hope you will enjoy making this easy dish as much as I did!

"'Cause every little thing's gonna be all right!"

Gosh! I just love listening to reggae while grilling!

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Springtime in New England

Living in New England, we've come to expect the weather to turn in a blink of an eye. Even when the calendar turned the page into April, in the back of our minds, most of us are still dreading the impending arrival of that last snowstorm (sort of a last hurrah by Mother Nature to close out a sometimes-difficult winter season). So it was with a sigh of relief that we finally hit 80F on the thermometer scale today. Even as the TV weathermen try to inform us that winter is finally over and to welcome the new spring season, in the back of the minds of us New Englanders, it's never over until we hit that magical 8-0 number on the thermometer.

And today, we finally crossed over that proverbial threshold. Goodbye Old Man Winter! It's now time to put the snowblower away for the season and to bring out the lawnmower. The changing of the guard, if you will. All I can say is, it's about time!

With spring also comes the in-season fruits and vegetables. Among the more popular ones include asparagus, artichoke, vidalia onions, arugula, chards, peas, radishes, strawberries, grapefruit and apricots. Incorporating these various ingredients into our daily meals is a rite of spring for most chefs and avid home cooks. Nowadays, most of these fruits and vegetables are available year round due to the ease of transporting them anywhere in the world. However, it's always a great feeling to be able to obtain these ingredients locally.

In the next few weeks, I'll be trying to incorporate these spring favorites into my dishes. So watch out for them. As a preview, I'll start off this Monday by making Caribbean Jerk Chicken with a refreshing fruit salad. See you then!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Popeye Would Be Proud of This Florentine

When I was a kid, I used to watch the cartoon, "Popeye" and marveled at how the salty sailor obtained superhuman strength whenever he consumed a can of spinach. "Hmmm...must be a ploy to get kids to eat their vegetables," I thought (yes, I was a pretty cynical 10-year old!). Well, long story short, Popeye and his heroic exploits never did enticed me to eat my vegetables. Only much later in life did I start eating and surprisingly (to me at least), enjoying my vegetables.

Spinach, like most vegetables, has high nutritional value and is rich in antioxidants and vitamins. Cooking it is easy but making sure that it is cooked right is the tricky part. A big handful of spinach leaves, when cooked too long, will wilt into barely anything. In general, the flavor profile of spinach matches very well with garlic, mushrooms, cheese and cream, which, for all intents and purposes, are all present and accounted for in this particular dish that we are cooking.

Let's start with a salmon fillet with the skin removed. Season both sides of the fish with salt and pepper and pan fry it on a hot, well-oiled skillet. The best result is to get some browning on either side, creating an irresistibly delicious crust on the flesh. Remove the fish from the pan and finish cooking it in the oven. Check for doneness frequently so as not to overcook the salmon.

Now with the pan still hot, add in some chopped onions and garlic and mushrooms (shiitake is the best choice but domestic ones are OK as well). Sauté these ingredients and then deglaze with some white wine and season with salt and pepper. Add heavy cream and parmesan cheese to the pan and turn off the heat. Do not add the spinach yet as it will overcook and wilt too much. Wait for the salmon to finish cooking first. When you are sure that the fish is done, turn the heat back on and add the spinach to the pan. Sauté the spinach with the rest of the ingredients to wilt it just little. Now the dish is ready to be served. Garnish with extra parmesan cheese by sprinkling it on the fish and the vegetable as well. Dishes made with spinach are often given the moniker "Florentine." So it's only fitting that this dish be called "Salmon Florentine."

If only Popeye could see me now!

You Can Tune a Piano But You Can't Tun-a Fish!

Synonymous with sushi and sashimi delicacies, the ahi (in Hawaiian) or yellowfin tuna is fast becoming an able and delicious replacement for the severely depleted and over-fished bluefin tuna species. Often served rare to medium rare, sashimi-grade tuna steaks are much sought after and a whole fish could go for thousands of dollars in auction in Japan. In fact, the highest price ever paid for a bluefin tuna was 20 million yen (or a little over US$173,000) back in 2001! Japan is the largest consumer of tuna and prices for the "perfect" tuna can fetch astronomical numbers. According to a recent news report from January 5th, 2009, two sushi bar owners shared the cost of a 282 lb. bluefin tuna. The price? A whopping $104,700!

This is a tuna appetizer that I created based on the many sushi dishes I've had over the years. Start with a sashimi-grade ahi tuna steak. As this is a pepper-seared tuna appetizer, season the steak with a little salt and plenty of fresh ground pepper. In fact, coat the entire surface of the tuna with plenty of pepper. Trust me, it'll be delicious! Heat up oil in a skillet and sear all four sides of the tuna steak ever so slightly--about a minute or less on each side. We are looking for a rare to medium-rare temperature. No sense in wasting such a nice piece of tuna, right? Use a sharp knife to slice the tuna steak, revealing its beautiful rare center.

Accompanying the tuna, I made some sushi rice and placed it on top of a piece of "nori" or roasted seaweed. Sprinkle some sesame seeds for taste and presentation. To add some color to the dish, I julienned some carrots and soaked them in a mixture of sugar and rice wine vinegar to just slightly pickle them. As a sauce, I made some wasabi and cucumber mayonnaise, topped with bits of chopped up parsley. Also provide some ponzu (citrus soy sauce) as a dip.

Going one step further, I also made miso soup to go along with this appetizer. I actually made a silly mistake in this picture. One does not drink miso soup with chopsticks unless they are hollow and can be used as straws! So, just ignore the chopsticks and replace it with a spoon in your imagination. LOL!

"Mi-so" Delicious!

Miso, the traditional ingredient in Japanese cuisine is hardly an obscure curiosity in our world of global cuisine interactivity. Yet, it is not a type of seasoning that gets much attention from most chefs outside of Asia--which is a shame, really. High in protein and rich in vitamins and minerals, miso is a healthy alternative to most sodium-laden seasonings. Produced by fermenting rice and/or soybeans with salt and a type of fungus, miso is available in a thick, pasty form. Most people would most likely recognize miso as the default soup of choice in all Japanese restaurants. However, there are other ways to use miso to flavor other types of ingredients as well.

Here, I created a miso glaze by mixing miso paste, rice wine vinegar, sugar, ponzu (Japanese citrus soy sauce), sake (Japanese rice wine) and water in a sauce pot and bringing these ingredients to a boil. Turn down the heat to continue heating until the resulting sauce is reduced slightly, creating a somewhat thick, glossy glaze. Seafood is a big part of the Japanese diet and miso can be used to coat fish like ahi (yellowfin) tuna and salmon. For this application, I'm using salmon as the protein.

Before you start, you must be aware that the glaze will burn quickly in the oven. So pre-cooking the fish is imperative. Start by seasoning the salmon fillet with salt and pepper and baking it in the oven until it is about 80% cooked. Remove the fish from the oven and slather it generously with the miso glaze. Add water to the cooking pan to reduce the chances of the glaze burning on the pan. Put it back into the oven for a few minutes to cook the salmon further with the glaze on it. Remove the fish from the oven and glaze the fish with the miso one more time before finishing it off again in the oven. Be careful not to overcook the salmon and drying it out. There's nothing worse than dry salmon (a well-done fillet mignon or overcooked calamari comes close).

As an accompaniment to the salmon, I made lemon-lime flavored sushi rice and a refreshing but mild cucumber and wasabi mayonnaise. Add a vegetable (in this case, broccoli) and you have yourself a balanced meal.

As you can see, this dish screams Japanese cuisine very loudly (miso, sushi and wasabi) but there are added minutiae like the mayonnaise-based sauce and the lemon and lime flavor in the sushi rice that provide some extra dimensionality to the overall flavor profile. Also, you can have fun with the types of flavor that you can put on the sushi rice. I've used cilantro, mango and pineapple before. Just be sure to use an ingredient that has a unique and strong taste to obtain that punch that you would need to bowl your diners over.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Pan Seared Sea Scallops Herbs a L'Orange, served with Asparagus

Without a doubt, sea scallops are one of my favorite seafood items. When done right and paired with the right ingredients, the inherent sweetness of the scallops will shine through. When choosing scallops at your local grocery store, make sure that what you are getting is not previously frozen or chemically treated. The taste and how the scallops cook would be vastly different from fresh scallops. Also, it is good to choose big and plump scallops, preferably the U10s or U12s (10 or 12 scallops to a lb.), as they are easier to handle when cooking and won't tear off as easily as the smaller ones.

Presentation-wise, scallops look best when just lightly pan seared to get some browning of the flesh on both sides. Start off with a hot skillet and melt some butter for searing the scallops. For the more health conscious, the butter can be substituted with vegetable oil. After lightly searing the scallops on both sides, remove them and finish them up in the oven. Most of the time, scallops of the size that we are using would not cook through all the way on the skillet without burning. It is always a good idea to finish them off in the oven for a few minutes.

Now, for the sauce. After removing the scallops, with the pan still hot, cook up some chopped garlic, fresh rosemary and thyme and then deglaze the skillet with the juice of an orange, freshly squeezed if possible. To add more citrus flavor to the sauce, add a shot of Grand Marnier (or Triple Sec) and reduce the liquid until it thickens to a saucy consistency. The strong aroma from the fresh rosemary and thyme will blend very well with the citrus of the orange, tickling one's nose and taste buds as well.

As for the asparagus, simply bring a pot of salted water to a boil and blanch the vegetable for a few minutes. Be careful not to overcook the asparagus. As soon as the asparagus becomes slightly soft, take them out and put them in cold ice water to immediately halt the carryover cooking. I like my asparagus a little crunchy, so I only boil them for less than 3 minutes. Before serving, drizzle some butter on the asparagus for taste and seasoning.

As you can see from the pictures above, arrange the asparagus and scallops in this fashion and pour the sauce on top of the scallops. You can garnish the dish with either a slice of orange or a sprig of thyme or rosemary.

However you do it, have fun and bon appetit!

Herb-Crusted Halibut with Shiitake Mushroom Broth

Among the members of the flatfish species, the halibut is not only the largest but also one of the most-sought after items on restaurant menus. Other notable members of this species include flounder, sole and turbot. Flatfish are weird, if not extraordinary creatures. When first born, they have eyes on both sides of their head, just like any regular fish. As they mature, flatfish start swimming sideways and one eye would migrate to the other side of the head (left or right depends on the species)! Together with the Dover sole, halibuts are much prized by seafood diners for its delicate and flaky flesh. The taste is somewhat sweet, much sweeter than most white fish, like the ubiquitous haddock. Still, it is almost always the most simple preparation of halibut that would appeal to most diners.

Here, I am taking it a notch higher and pairing the halibut with herbs and mushrooms. Not only would this dish be delicious, it is also healthy and a treat for halibut aficionados. Mixing fresh rosemary, thyme and oregano with flavored breadcrumbs, I apply a generous coat of this aromatic mixture to the entire top surface of the halibut fillet. One can either remove the skin before cooking or after. Leaving the skin on while cooking would better hold the delicate flesh of this fish together but either way, the skin should be removed before serving. If you leave the skin on, use a flat spatula to scoop the fish up while leaving the skin on the cooking surface. The skin should easily slip off when the fish is cooked. Bake it in the oven at 450F but make sure not to overcook it. Halibut cook relatively fast and one can easily overcook this fish if one is not paying attention.

For the mushroom broth, I boil fresh shiitake and domestic mushrooms together with julienned carrots and scallion stalks to wring the most flavor out of all the ingredients. Finish it by adding a little salt and pepper to taste. This broth should be light and flavorful without much tinkering or seasoning.

Pretty delish if you ask me!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Appetizer idea: Mushrooms & Shrimp

Here's an idea for a delicious appetizer using portobello mushrooms. The caps of the portobello mushroom are very suitable for holding delicious ingredients in place.

For this particular appetizer, take shrimp, carrots, scallions, onions and garlic and puree them all in a blender. Season the resulting puree with salt and pepper. Now, in order to determine if the seasoning is enough, you would need to cook a bit of the puree in oil and taste it. Repeat this step until you are satisfied with the seasoning. Next, you need to clean the portobello mushroom caps by removing the gills with a spoon. After doing that, you can now take some of that puree and slather it on the cap, essentially using the cap as an edible container.

Cook the mushroom with the puree by baking it in an oven at 420F. Brush some melted butter on top of the puree and add some water to the pan that holds the appetizers. This is to prevent the mushroom caps from drying out. Bake for approximately 30 minutes and you will have yourself some yummy mushroom and shrimp appetizers as pictured above.


Monday, April 13, 2009

Easter Dinner with Cornish Game Hens

Well, Easter just came and went. For the special day, here's a nice poultry recipe to try.

This is an Oven Roasted Cornish Game Hen stuffed with a special stuffing made up of apples, raisins, baby bello mushrooms, celery, carrots, sage, cinnamon, shallots and garlic. Also added a touch of white port or red wine for some extra zip. Of course, add some bread crumbs (I use whole wheat bread plus some Ritz crackers) to soak up the liquid and bind the ingredients together. Game birds are usually stuffed with a collection of fruits like berries. Despite its name, the Cornish game hen is actually not a game bird but a chicken slaughtered at a young age. For this particular application, I am using apples and raisins as the fruits. It all depends on your own preference. Also, instead of using bread crumbs, you can also use wild rice, which is equally delicious.

For the sauce, I made the classic Saltimbocca application. It consists of cream, fresh sage, Madeira wine, shallots, garlic and salt and pepper to taste. This particular sauce complements chicken, steak and veal dishes very well.

It's a Lobstrosity!

Here are 2 great lobster dishes that I cooked in the past few months. Very easy to make and of course, very delicious. If you love lobsters, you should love these dishes!

The first is a pan roasted lobster cooked in its own yummy juices with garlic, lemon and sherry wine. Here's a picture:

The lobster is first split in half down the middle and pan roasted in oil. Add garlic, fresh-squeezed lemon juice and sherry wine and cover the pan so that the lobster will cook. You can also add scallops and shrimp for added flavor. Very simple and very delicious. When the lobster is cooked, just dig in!

The second dish has an Asian influence. The lobster is also pan roasted the same way as the above dish but without the lemon juice. Add some Chinese cooking wine instead of sherry. This time, add ginger, carrots, shallots or onions together with the garlic. Sweat out the ginger and onions. After the lobster cooks, add snow peas plus a touch of soy sauce and oyster sauce to add more layers of flavor to the dish. In order for the snow peas not to wilt and become limp, add that ingredient last, just a few minutes before serving. For garnish, chop up some scallions and sprinkle on top. Here's a picture of how the dish turned out:

NOTE: You can also add a touch of corn starch slurry in order to thicken up the sauce. It is a matter of preference more than anything else.

One Year On......

Wow! Just Wow!

It's been more than a year since I last posted on this blog. Time sure flies....literally!

Let me start off by updating my dear readers on what's been going on in the year since I last posted. I graduated from the Culinary Certificate Program (CCP) at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts last May with honors in academics and lab. Yippee!! Since then, I've been working full time at Fishbones restaurant in Chelmsford in order to gain experience for my next venture in the culinary world.

Winter was pretty bad, had lots of snow storms and that big ice storm that knocked power out everywhere in the state for a while. The hotly contested general election is finally over and things are again moving in the right direction. Well, it's spring again and the new regular MLB season has just started. The BoSox are off to a bad start, so let's hope the hitting picks up soon. The Celts are again the mix for the NBA post-season. My fav band, U2 just released an excellent album, "No Line on the Horizon" and I've been listening to it almost non-stop (actually listening to it right now as I'm writing this! Magnificent......).

Ahhhhh......I love spring! The warmer temps, bright sunshine, new flowers start to bloom and inevitably, a fresh start to the year.

And best of all, I'm back blogging again!