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Quick Meal

July 18th, 2007 · No Comments

Today’s NYTimes has 101 very quick (ten-minutes or less) “summer” meals (registration required to read NYTimes online)—one or two-line recipes—from Mark Bittman, the self-styled “Minimalist.”

Basics are a necessity in the repertoire of anyone who makes any claim to being able to cook, but even the basics are elusive to a great many people. Bittman sells the virtues of simplicity, and his avuncular, self-referential, semi-bumbling manner probably goes a long way to help people overcome their sense that cooking is one of the black arts.

Whatever the philosophical underpinnings of such a perception, and its implications in everyday life, I will have to address in Per Diem as a more suitable venue for open-ended opining.

In this blog, I will devote as little space as possible to get at the heart of the matter.

The setting was typical: a suburban deck and kitchen, a thunderstorm threatening, a planned Sunday mid-summer dinner of whatever the market offered that day for five adults.

We ended up going to two farm stands in Concord, MA. One, known to me, was Verrill Farms—a very large operation, and more an open-air market than a mere stand, and the other, recommended as the better for just-picked corn, called Brigham Farm Stand, and which seemed to fit the stereotypical bill: an ill-lit wooden structure, somewhere in size between a shack and a small tractor shed, with rough tables and bins within and without.

We bought the corn at Brigham, ten ears—I don’t “check” corn, pulling back the husk and disturbing the tassle, tossing rejects back on the table, with the last narrow rows of kernels, like baby teeth, exposed to the air and the insects. I think it’s disgusting and unnecessary. Whole ears, of sufficient girth and length, with an abundant tassle, a feeling of solidity with no indentations or soft places, and a pristine husk, covering all of the ear is usually enough sign that it’s an intact edible specimen. In my cooking life of 40 years or so, I’ve had to dispose of less than 1 or 2% of corn bought this way.

Anyway, the rest is simple.

Mid-Summer Dinner for Five

1 Fillet of halibut, three pounds (or a little, tiny bit, bigger)

3 Medium-sized zucchini

3 Medium-sized Japanese Eggplants

3 Medium-sized sweet onions

1/4 cup each of white wine or a South of France rosé, chicken or fish stock. A splash of fish sauce (Vietnamese or Thai), if you have it.

Olive oil, salt (preferably Kosher or sea salt, not “fine” grain), pepper (fresh ground, if possible)

Shit-load of aluminum foil scraps or a roll, pieces should be clean, preferably unused scraps, large enough to cover half of each vegetable completely.

Optional Fresh Fruit Salsa (for the fish)

I should say, I almost forgot to include this item, a garnish, and it was the hit of the evening. This recipe, very straightforward in amounts of ingredients, is surprisingly sufficient to provide enough salsa to put gobs on every remaining bite of halibut in this meal.

1 Large Vidalia Onion (can also use a Bermuda onion, Spanish onion, or any similar mild to outright sweet onion)

1 Large Red Bell Pepper

1 Large cling fruit: Nectarine, Peach, White versions of same, Mango, just ripe, but no more

2 Limes, regular size

Juicer or reamer.

For the Salsa (to be prepared at least an hour before starting to cook)You will need an exceedingly sharp knife and a good eye and steady hand. I recommend a mandoline, or similar device set to the thinnest setting that will still allow each slice to maintain its integrity.

Clean and stem, and de-seed and de-pith the Red Bell Pepper, and divide it in quarters. Cut thin slices (very thin, in fact, we’re talking 1/32″ to maybe 1/16″), and halve them when done, as if making matchsticks.

Pit the Fruit and cut it in quarters. Same drill, exceedingly thin slices, which should be wide enough that you cut them into match sticks.

Skin the onion and cut off the rough parts of the stem end, leaving as little core as possible. and also cutting off the head, so the top of the onion is exposed as a flat surface. Cut the onion in half along its polar axis, and slice each half, again, exceedingly thin.

Place all the slices a bowl three times the volume of all the ingredients. Make sure your hands are clean with soap and hot water wash. And mix all the slices by hand, separating the slices of onion into arcs of onion layer, like curved matchsticks.

Squeeze the juice of both limes, and add it to the salsa. Sprinkle with no more than 1 – 1-1/2 Tablespoons of Extra Virgin Olive Oil.

Mix by hand or whatever puts you on the good side of squeamish about touching food. Cover the bowl opening with a piece of clingable plastic wrap, and place it in the refrigerator for at least an hour. When ready to serve as a garnish. Mix the salsa with a fork. The ingredients will have macerated significantly even in a relatively short amount of time, and is extremely limpid, with a melding or blending of flavors nicely beginning. The salsa should be eaten when very fresh I think, as this allows separating the flavors even in your mouth more readily.

For the Main MealPut a 12-14 inch cast iron skillet on the burner of a stove-top set to medium-high heat. While it’s heating up (sprinkle some grains of salt in at the start; as they start to brown, the pan is hot enough), cut the fillet cross-wise into more or less equal portions by weight (not linear dimension—you most likely won’t find a single fillet this big that is of equal thickness throughout).Set the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Non-convection.

Start the charcoal (I prefer hardwood chunks, but we were using briquets; I also prefer one of those chimney starters, which leaves no chemical residue to burn off—the hardwood chunks burn MUCH hotter than briquets, so this will make the cooking of the vegetables even quicker). When it’s ready to be spread out and the grill put in place, do so, and cover with the lid (very important if a storm is brewing).

Halve each zucchini and eggplant lengthwise, and the onions through the polar axis (stem to top).

Depending on your level of fastidiousness, choose the best method for you to coat each vegetable half in oil (I use my hands). Salt each half lightly and sprinkle with a bit of the pepper—probably best to do this as each piece sits on its own piece of aluminum foil. To one of my friends, who knows who he is, this is an enormous waste of aluminum foil, and he doesn’t understand that my sole reason for this methodology is to be able to expose a large flat surface of each veg to the heat, as well as the other side, and that each piece will cook at its own rate, and therefore this is the best way to manage removal from the heat while cooking to a “turn.”

As indicated, cut the fillet into portions. Coat each portion with oil, and lightly salt and pepper each side. Place on a dish or platter on the counter next to the stovetop.

With briquets, the vegetables and corn should take about 10-15 minutes of vaguely watchful cooking on the grill—you do have to turn each piece halfway through the cooking of it. If you have no built-in sense of when this is to be done, you’ll have to wing it by watching and squeezing. The husks of the corn will be slightly toasted when that side is done—don’t have to squeeze; they won’t tell you anything, simply turn 180 degrees to “toast” the other side. Remove the ears as they are done, and leave unhusked on a platter. They will stay hot.

The pieces of vegetable should be squeezed (with tongs) and as they get slightly soft and give readily to a light light squeeze, turn 180 degrees to expose the other side to the direct heat. When each piece is clearly readily yielding to pressure, it’s done. Pile up, still covered with the foil, on another platter.

As the vegetables cook, and once the pan is ready, add the portions of fish to the pan, non-skin side first, thoughtfully positioning them (what you think about as you do this is up to you) so as to leave room for all pieces. It will be all right if they touch, just make sure all of the surface of the side that is cooking is touching the pan surface. There will be a fair amount of smoke, and immediate searing and spattering as soon as each portion is added. Let it be and keep going until all portions are in the pan. Pace yourself according to the thickness of each portion, if the fat end is really thick, take your time before getting to the thinner portions from near the tail of the fish.

The fish should sear for at least three or four minutes, and likely longer, unless you’re on a commercial cooktop, before you turn it. Use a spatula with a very thin flexible blade, preferably of metal. Work it under the portion of fish, which shouldn’t stick too badly as long as you’ve left it alone while searing. The mark of an amateur is impatience. Let it be, and let it cook.

Flip each portion and sear the reverse side. Cook each portion for an equal amount of time, using the thickest pieces as an index. The time it takes to execute the placement and then flipping will be sufficient to allow the thinner pieces to cook for less time.

Once the reverse side (which should be the skin side) is seared, flip the portions again. They should fit in the pan a little more easily as they will have slightly shrunk while being seared.

Remove the pan from the heat, and pour in the wine and stock, in those areas where the fish isn’t. That is, don’t pour it on the fish (though that won’t hurt necessarily) and put no more than a bare 1/2 – 1 teaspoon of fish sauce in the pan as well, being careful to get none of this ingredient on the fish.

With pot holders or other heat-proof protection for your hands, place the pan in the hot oven.

The fish will be done in 20 minutes.

Serve fish from its own platter, spoon the sauce in the pan over the fish portions before serving.

Tags: 02138 and environs · Food · Local Food

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