Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Salon II: Oysters, Clams, and a Real Big Fish

Saturday night's Food on the Dole Salon found six food enthusiasts in my kitchen staring down a lovely mountain of seafood. Building that mountain were Bras d'Or Oysters of Nova Scotia, Californian Hama Hama Oysters, Manila Clams (from Washington, not the Philippines, much to the chagrin of one attendee), salt cod brandade, and a gorgeous wild striped bass, whole and weighing in over five pounds. Rounding out said mountain was homemade epi and baguettes, my beloved bibb lettuce bistro salad, "teenage" artichokes and a bright salsa verde for the bass. With six of the city's best eaters in tow, we forged ahead, and we conquered this mountain.
I started with the salt cod by soaking it in cold water for about 24-36 hours, changing the water every 4-6 hours or so. This food, which is discussed at length in Mark Kurlansky's two remarkably informative books, Salt and Cod, offered the preservation (salt) of the nutrition (cod) necessary for long sea voyages and thus global expansion way back when. Seeing it these days in a store, one wouldn't realize the enormously important role it played in the development of civilization--it's just a crusty looking piece of old fish. BUT, it can be transformed into something delicious and hearty and filling; in this case, brandade. After the above soaking to remove all the excess salt, I briefly poached it in milk, at which point it was, relatively, tender and flaky, not too different from fresh cod. I gave it a few pulses in a food processor with some roasted garlic and lots of olive oil, then folded in potatoes that had been baked, then pushed through a ricer. Salt, pepper, more olive oil, and a bit of the poaching milk, then it was spread into a baking dish, topped with some panko bread crumbs, more olive oil, then baked 'till crisp. Stick a spoon in it and put it next to a few loaves of bread, and it's gone like that.
I shucked some of our oysters, but wanting the saloneers to get the full experience, I left quite a few for them to do. Some did one or two; one guy, a navy man from New Orleans, blew through them like he'd been doing it his whole life. Well, maybe not quite that fast, but his claim that he had never shucked oysters didn't line up with the speed at which he did it this night. That's the funny thing about oyster shucking--there's always someone in a group who just kind of "gets" it from the start. The rest of us don't, and have to practice and practice. Either that, or there's a band of underground oyster shucking hustlers walking the streets.
I encouraged all guests to eat the oysters nude, by which I mean to say I asked them to try the oysters without the assistance of sauce and to chew them, while remaining fully clothed. I've written before about the importance of understanding and enjoying the terroir of oysters; despite mignonette's acidity being one of my absolute favorite flavors, I feel it masks the great things about oysters, and chewing allows us to enjoy their texture, and to release some more of the tasty liquid inside. Happily, everyone tried this, and though I offered a tangelo granita as a more subtle topping, the oysters were eaten on their own. Perhaps it was politeness, or perhaps it was the fact that sparkling wine was flowing pretty freely at this point, but I was glad to see them gobbled up so enthusiastically.
We prepared our bass in the spirit of good timing; it would be thrown in the oven as we sat down to eat our clams. Guests chopped leeks, fennel, lemons and green garlic, all of which went into the fish's belly cavity after it had been rubbed inside and out with olive oil, salt and pepper. We laid it on a bed of fennel fronds and leek ends and set it aside as we moved to the clams. So very, very simple.

For the clams, I had prepared a version of soffrito--found the world over as a flavoring agent made of simple ingredients (in this case onion, tomato and olive oil) transformed through heat and time. I minced an onion, put it in a pot over low, low heat with a bunch of olive oil and let it start to brown. Since good tomatoes are in super short supply right about now, I used some nice canned tomatoes; chopped them up fine and added them to the mix, letting the olive oil-covered soffrito go all night in my oven, as low as it could go. The result is a highly concentrated, reduced little mishmosh of flavor--keep it in a jar for weeks in the fridge, and add it to anything for a burst of flavor. We sauteed some of the leeks and fennel we'd sliced for the fish in butter, added a few good dollops of the soffrito, then the clams (purged in salt water for an hour or so to help remove any sand), hit the pan with some white wine and threw a lid on. These little guys steamed open in a few minutes (manila clams open much more quickly than most other clams) and we were set. Toasted some baguette slices and spread them with aioli, dished up the clams into bowls, and tucked in.

To serve with the fish, artichokes I like to call "teenage"--not baby, but not so adult that the choke has developed into something inedible yet--were cleaned and quartered, tossed with more fennel and leeks in the same pan the clams were cooked in, a few juices remaining--and put in the hot hot oven along with the fish as we ate. The bibb lettuce (good hydroponic stuff) was tossed with a sharp shallot vinaigrette and tarragon, basil and parsley leaves. We finished the clams, moved to the salad, then the fish was ready--soft and moist, with a few crispy points on the top half--the bottom rich and succulent, braising in the juices created through cooking. I made a quick salsa verde: parsley, tarragon, basil, garlic, capers, olives, a couple anchovies, sherry vinegar and a good bolt of olive oil pureed together. I was thrilled that this group was so comfortable with each other--people were, without abandon, picking at the fish on the pan after having eaten a few helpings; an eyeball was eaten for the first time, we discussed the benefits of the top (crisp) vs. the bottom (succulent and juicy), and how flavorful the juices in the pan were. We talked and talked, food and more, well into the evening. And yours truly was thrilled when the offered whiskey was taken late in the night/early in the morning.
It was a truly vibrant group, a simple yet beautiful meal, and I am ready to parlay this energy in to the next Salon. I will release details of that in the coming week--most likely the event will be somewhere around that second weekend of April, not far away at all. Of course, a huge thank you to the guests who have attended so far, and here's to great cooking, food and company!

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