Saturday, July 30, 2011

Magret de canard en gastrique de mûres, Yukon Gold smashed potatoes

seared duck breast with blackberry gastrique, garlic smashed potatoes

What do you do when sour, wild blackberries have conquered part of your back yard? Make them into a gastrique and pour it over some seared duck breast, of course! Make some smashed potatoes with duck fat and garlic, sprinkle some chives over the top, and voilá! A fancy French dinner.
Served with an '06 Yorkville Highlands Merlot. Organic, even.

Dessert was ice cream sandwiches, home made. You assemble them yourself, just before putting them in your mouth, so the chocolate cracker stays crunchy and the ice cream... well, it's messy and drippy. Once you've had an ice cream sandwich like this, there's no going back to those frozen, soggy things at the store.

Food competitions. Ugh.

I hate food competitions. I'm not talking about how many weenies a skinny kid can stuff down his gullet. That's real competition, since most weenies in stomach wins. But a chocolate torte vs a mousse vs a cookie vs ice cream, one winner take all? WTF?

Food is a blend between visual and performing arts. It should look interesting, or better yet, enticing, or best irresistible. It should burst upon your palate like a multi-flavored wave: an initial impact then immersion, then a lingering presence like the foam left by the wave's passage. It can have surprises. Pleasant, like passing a sea horse. Or not, like getting rolled in the sand and wrapped in cold, clammy kelp. Either way, who is to say that a sea horse is better than a clown triggerfish or perhaps a Flabellina iodinea? It's really a matter of personal taste.

Recently, a fellow ARC culinary arts student threw his plate into the ring in a statewide competition. First, he had to use Brand X Chocolate, since they were the sponsor. His dessert was pitted against a multitude of (I presume) desserts, all of which had to be made with Brand X Chocolate. Other than Brand X chocolate as an ingredient, what did these desserts really share?

So he threw his creation into the gaping maw of the judges, pulled the handle and waited for the wheels to spin, hoping that the stars would align, little lights glow in their heads, their ears rotate, and ribbons and accolades would pour forth to the clamor of bells and sparkle of lights.

They did not.

In the end, proud winners pranced upon the dais while the strewn bodies of losers littered the chocolate-stained floor.

Except that the losers didn't really lose, since they no doubt tested and re-tested their gustatory formulas on friends and family, perfecting them through many long hours in the kitchen. They and their friends felt their creations worthy of a ribbon, accolades, fame and fortune. That should be consolation enough, for the true competition was not the appeal of the dishes, but who best anticipated the whims of the judges.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Whole grain bread

Whole grain bread isn't simple. The challenge is to make the bread taste so good that you don't even think about health benefits. It's a bit more challenging to make than bread made with unbleached white flour, but with a bit of help from Peter Reinhart, it's coming along well. I kind of bent or ignored half his advice and developed my own technique based on his theories (and mine).

The bread is made from two parts: a pâte fermentée that gets renewed as new bread is made, and a soaker. I decided to let the soaker ferment a bit as well and care for it like a sourdough starter. My soaker bubbles a little but appears to have no leavening quality at all. That's not what I'm looking for anyway - I want flavor, and I get the leavening by adding SAF Instant yeast in the final mix per Mr. Reinhart's advice.

I use either four ingredients: flour, water, salt, yeast - or five by adding dark rye flour - or six by adding buckwheat flour - or seven by adding flax seeds  - or eight by putting sunflower seeds on top for a real multi-grain, complex symphony of cereal flavors. I've resisted adding sweeteners of any kind, not even agave. The goal is to let all the interplay of fermentation, whole grains and the baking process bring out the flavors inherent in the flour, without resorting to adding other elements.

This dough works better for large loaves, since this allows the crust to get thoroughly caramelized without overcooking and drying the interior. Although regular pains come out fine, they just don't have the same thick, crunchy crust.

The flour is 100% hard red winter wheat from Community Grains. The only place to get it, unfortunately, is at Whole Paycheck in the bulk section. The last time I was there, I cleaned out the bin and didn't even get five pounds of flour!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Corn dogs!

You're at the fair. It's summer. This is what you want. Corn dogs. Better yet, Jumbo Corn dogs. One of America's most beloved additions to the world's culinary culture. Served with ketchup, mustard, hot sauce, BBQ sauce...

So, with all the supposed American creativity going on here in the birthplace of corn dogs, why are they all pretty much the same thing? A large hot dog or Polish sausage with a stick up its nether end, battered and fried. Ok, they're tasty, but what if you were at the fair every day? Would you perhaps yearn for a flight of corn dogs, each one different? So different that you could eat them for at least a week and never repeat the experience? No, we're not talking calories or belly diameter here. Just flavor.

The basic corn dog has a flour/corn meal batter, baking powder/baking soda, salt, pepper, milk (or buttermilk) and oil (from frying). They can have egg, bacon drippings, sugar... Plus sauce.

Chef Ray at ARC once made corn dogs using Toulouse style French garlic sausages. I ate too many, and I wasn't the only one. Proof that there's room for creativity in the dog-on-stick realm.

So, after my three days at the fair, where I diligently inspected more booths than you could shake a (corn dog) stick at, I started thinking... corn dogs for a week... two weeks...

Day 1:
Basic corn dog: standard batter, beef hot dog. Get this part done and end your jonesing for the traditional.

Day 2:
Green chili corn dog: Green chili/pork/tomatillo sausage in Chili/fresh corn batter. Cilantro mayonnaise.

Day 3:
North African dog: Spicy lamb merguez sausage in Corn/cilantro batter. Harissa sauce (red peppers, chilis, garlic, olive oil...)

Day 4:
Clucking Corn Dog: Chicken mousseline in garlic/parsley corn batter, dipped in beer batter and fried again for crunch. Served with aioli.

Day 5:
Salmon dog: Thin-sliced salmon fillet, doused with lemon-dill sauce, rolled, wrapped in nori (seaweed), rolled in rice, dipped in wasabi tempura batter. Served with tempura dipping sauce.

Day 6:
HogDog: Italian pork sausage with fennel, wrapped in bacon, lard batter. Served with bacon dripping - basil mayo.

Day 7:
Squash Dog: zucchini with burdock (gobo) root inside, rosemary/garlic/sage paste, blue corn/quinoa batter, garlic aioli. All organic, of course.

Day 8: 
SheepDog: ground lamb, bulgur wheat, pine nuts, cinnamon, sesame seed batter, tahini sauce.

Day 9: 
DimSumDog: ground chicken, garlic, chives, five spice powder. Rolled in dim sum dough (like for char siu bao) and steamed. Black bean/chili sauce for dipping.

Day 10:
Melanzana: Grilled eggplant round, Parmesan cheese, Pecorino romano cheese, Garlic paste. Onion-Parmesan batter. Marinara sauce for dip. Alternate: use polenta instead of corn dog batter.

Day 11:
Molé Dog: sage/turkey/garlic/chili sausage, chocolate/chili batter, five chili sauce for dipping.

Day 12:
Fire Dog: Habanero/onion/pork sausage, bhut jolokia pepper batter, habañero chili relish.

Day 13:
Wimp Dog: Potato/turkey/chive sausage, parsley/chive batter, lemon thyme sauce. This is sort of medicinal, to help people get over the fire dog.

Day 14:
Mastiff: One pound ground beef/pork bacon sausage, horseradish batter, beef jus for dipping. This is so they don't leave hungry.

There are still a few more options, but two weeks of corn dogs should keep anyone happy. If you make any of these, please let me know how they came out.

Monday, July 25, 2011

What Apple Eats

The Apple Apple.

This is an apple from Apple. It's organic, of course. If you work at Apple HQ, they're free. If you're invited by an Apple employee, they're also free. No, it's not a Macintosh; it's a Royal Gala. (?!) Go figure.

The Apple cafeteria is really spiffy. There's a wood-burning oven for pizza, a burrito station where you can custom order the burrito of your dreams, Northern California style. Roast chicken, both for in-house dining and to-go awaits, not far from the roast beef station. There's an incredible salad bar. For dessert, you can have a really nice coffee flavored cake or sorbetto. There are gleaming steel and plastic machines capable of brewing your favorite blend from Starbucks.

Maybe you can have other things on other days. I don't know, since I was only invited there once for dinner, by a friend who is an employee. "Lunch is even better," I was told. There were a lot of covered grills on the patio, apparently put to use only during the midday meal. There was also a full wood-burning oven on wheels, giving new meaning to the term "to go". I never did find where it actually goes, though. It was just parked next to the grills.

That's the only way into this sanctum in Cupertino. The general public has to content themselves with the Company Store, where they can buy clothing apparently not available at the normal Apple Stores. I don't know, since we arrived six minutes too late and they would not even let us in for a look. So, I got a look at a lawn, some trees and a cafeteria. I could also see balconies where the Malus Elite no doubt gather to concoct exotic blends of silicon and software to amaze and delight the faithful.

Just so you know you're at Apple, there is an iPad built into the wall. If you try to turn it on, it will say, "This iPad is disabled". Rather cryptic, but then I should have known better than to stick my fingers into strange iPads. Below it is a "beer bash" button. I have no idea what it did, and didn't want to get my friend fired by pushing it to satisfy my curiosity. Does it bash beer? Is a beer bash like a monster mash? Does it run Lion (OS 10.7)? Only the inner cognoscenti are privileged to know these deep secrets; my friend was sworn to secrecy and could not utter a word.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Zucchini. It's what's for breakfast! (and lunch and...)

It grows faster than a balloon attached to a high pressure air hose. One day it's a yellow flower; the next it's big as a blimp and full of seeds, ready for the compost heap. You might get nine pounds of the stuff per plant. With four plants, that can land you in zucchini purgatory for months.

It does force you to be creative. I can think of few things less appealing than eating boiled zucchini every day for three or more months. My taste buds would crawl out of my mouth and set up a camp outside near the basil, since they would not be needed until the end of zucchini season.

For my plate, I wanted something that nobody else would bring. Something different, yet where zucchini remains the main ingredient instead of buried under so much filler that it can pass unperceived.

Before getting to the recipe, I would like to state for the record that I hate contests. People, however seem to feel they're necessary. At least the people at the community garden. I especially hate competitions for artistic things. Like food.

Our community garden named zucchini as this month's star ingredient for a morning brunch. Yes, zucchini. No, it's not the first thing I think of for breakfast either. There were two or three zucchini casseroles, zucchini fritters, zucchini quiche, zucchini brownies, zucchini bread, zucchini-apple cobbler (this won), and my entry: Turkish Grilled Zucchi Salad. That name was too long, so they just called it "exotic zucchini" or something.

So, a salad, several appetizers or side dishes and a few desserts were thrown together to see which was best. In what sense? Best with a planned meal, sweetest, most zucchini-esque? Least? Least perceptible zucchini? Most quantity of zucchini converted to something in no way resembling the star ingredient? No. Just "best". Judged by someone listening to how much noise everyone made when each dish was named. Although my plate generated some noise, it was not enough to register in the score keeper's head.

Nonetheless, several people told me it was their favorite dish. It also had the advantage of being unique on the table, and even recognizable as zucchini.

Turkish Grilled Zucchini Salad

  • zucchini, sliced into 1/2" thick squares (the dimensions depend on the size of the zucchini)
  • EVOO
  • black pepper
  • a bit of salt
  • lemon juice
  • chocolate mint (for garnish), chiffonade
  • za'atar: (a blend of toasted and ground sesame seeds, powdered sumac, sea salt, thyme and oregano)
  • dry cheese: I used queso fresco, but a crumbly goat cheese or feta would work well, too.
  1. Toss the cut zucchini in some olive oil, salt and pepper lightly.
  2. Grill the zucchini until they've shrunk and browned a bit, yet still are moist in the center.
  3. Put the zucchini in a bowl. If you're serving it warm, add the cheese, lemon juice, za'atar and mint. If you're serving it cold, mix the zucchini, the cheese and some of the za'atar in a bowl, refrigerate, and add the lemon juice, mint and the rest of the za'atar at serving time.
It's a simple recipe. You'll probably even love it the first three times you make it.

More ideas for zucchini:
  • Candy it.
  • Deep fry it, tempura style.
  • Make a relish with fresh habañero chiles, parsley and cilantro. Nobody will be bored.
  • Add sugar, ferment it and distill it into some strange liqueur.
  • Do something molecular gastronomy with it: a foam, a gel, powder it...
I'm sure opportunities will come up over the summer for more exciting plates...

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Vive la France! Bastille Day 2011

How's this for a French plate? Supreme de volaille braisé au sauce gastrique de mûres avec duxelles de champignons, servi avec pain de seigle aux graines de tournesol. Oui, that should put the Léon in your Napoléon! It was, after all, less work than making puff pastry or croissants.

Here's how it went together:

2 chicken breasts, skin on
salt, pepper TT
a bit of oil for frying
filtered juice from about 1/2 cup of fresh blackberries.
red wine vinegar
dry white vermouth
chicken stock

Sauté the chicken breasts, skin down, in the oil. When brown, transfer to baking dish with about 3/4" of vermouth, salt, pepper and chicken stock poured in. Place in oven preheated to 425°F, cook about 25 minutes.

To prepare the gastrique, deglaze the frying pan with some chicken stock and vermouth. Add some red wine vinegar and a bit of sugar (not too much!). Reduce this to about half, then add the blackberry juice. Stir to keep from sticking and reduce. At the last minute, add a bit of butter. This will reduce the astringency of the sauce - if you want to keep the astringency, leave out the butter. I wanted to soften the sauce because it was going on chicken, not duck. I would have left it more sour for duck, but duck is about $14 per pound in the supermarket whereas chicken is about $1.50. Chicken won.

The duxelles is just chopped mushrooms, chicken stock, salt, pepper, a bit of white wine and some chopped garlic reduced down to where there's almost no liquid left.

To plate, spoon some of the duxelles into the center of the plate and arrange the chicken breast over it. Spoon on the gastrique and serve. If you want to be fancier, you can slice the chicken breast and fan it over the duxelles. Or even fancier, make a potato purée with some butter and chicken stock, then arrange the sliced chicken and duxelles over it.

This sauce tastes really expensive, by the way. It should, because I took the idea from a fancy French restaurant, although my sauce was quite different than theirs.

Last note: my camera went off to Canon for repairs after the mirror detached from its carriage. Apparently it might be a month (hopefully not more) before I'm reunited with the camera, after a leisurely repair process. At least it should come back cleaned, re-mirrored and hopefully good for another 100,000 shutter activations. So, if the photo doesn't look as good as previous images that's because it isn't.

Marché Moderne, Costa Mesa

When they told me that the restaurant is in the Penthouse, I imagined a spacious entry filled with voluptuous leather armchairs filled with scantily clad yet fashionable women hobnobbing with someone with a strong resemblance to Hugh Hefner. Getting there did nothing to reduce this feeling, since the place is located in the billionaire wing of South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa. Almost all the stores are French, although nobody working in them is.

Instead, it just looked like the typical upscale restaurant. Hostess at the front, bar along the right side, open kitchen in the back separated from the main dining area by a low wall. A patio garden through the back doors. No high level interior design anywhere evident. The thing that struck me was how un-bistro like the place looked. Are we in a steakhouse or...? Is this truly the home of what some critics are calling the best French bistro food in Southern California, perhaps the entire state?

Some people equate French food (and the French in general) with snobbishness. Although it's totally untrue in France it seems to be a pernicious evil here in California at least as far as French restaurants go. In France, if you're willing to adventure into the food, fall backwards into the arms of the chef and let his food carry you like the crowd in a rock concert, you'll be fine and will likely be treated more than well. Our first impression was an unsmiling hostess who made every effort to avoid eye contact, as though we were some sort of soul stealing gypsies instead of simple voyagers in search of a great meal. She led us past the open kitchen where people were plating in front and cooking behind, with a glowing wood-burning oven taking center stage. Our table sat in the garden area, served by a waiter whose job was to keep forty people happy, an amazing feat of front house juggling if there ever was one.

After being seated, we noticed that the menus, housed in not especially hygenic looking holders, were placed directly on our clean napkins. So, a potential smorgasbord of microbes was sitting there, atop a formerly pristine napkin, just to achieve an effect of what? Adventure mixed with anxiety perhaps? Why not just lay the day's menu on top of the napkin without the unwashed, padded holder? We looked at each other, thinking the same thought: is this the microbe du jour?

Eventually, the waiter managed to stop by our table and answer some questions. At this point, I was already thinking that the back of the house would have to carry the day. Luckily, the waiter was well informed and able to guide us in our selections.

Two of us chose the prix fixe menu du jour: an emulsified salad mixing greens and fruit heavily laced with tarragon. One of us skipped the first course, instead opting to take occasional stabs at my charcuterie plate: rilletes, country style paté, dry salami, Spanish style chorizo, prosciutto. The rillettes were ground silky smooth, not the more chunky rendition typical of France. Kind of like a porky foie gras, but without so much four spice. The best item was the country style paté; enough texture for a good mouthfeel, rich with flavors that evolved on the palate.

Since the wines were more on the pricy side of things than not, we opted for a Cremant d'Alsace. If you're going to pay for a decent wine and you're celebrating, might as well go with something bubbly that will complement most dishes.

Our main courses would be fish with a curry sauce, scallops in black butter, duck breast with a gastrique sauce and a tagine with preserved lemons, merguez sausage, mint, crème fraîche shrimp and couscous. The duck breast was served with fresh morel mushrooms, baby turnips and spring onions, all coated in a gastrique sauce to perk things up a bit. The scallops came with sautéd brussel sprout leaves, the nuttiness of the sprouts playing a counterpoint to the richer beurre noire coating the seafood. The white fish with curry was, well, forgettable. Just white protein from the sea lacking any of its own assertiveness or flavor, carrying the curry sauce yet not taking part in the melody. The tagine brought different flavors with virtually every bite, since you could opt in or out of the mint sauce, spear a shrimp or a piece of merguez, perhaps rub in a bit of preserved lemon...

As the meal progressed, we chatted more and more with our waiter. As it turned out, he was from Durango. Not the ordinary place in Colorado, but the Durango near Copper River Canyon in Mexico. It turned out that the staff was mostly Spanish speaking, although the chef/owners are indeed French. It's always fun to go to a French restaurant and speak Spanish with foodies from far away lands. We also talked about restaurants in D.F. (a.k.a. Mexico City) and current trends in Mexican cuisine in Mexico.

The fancy, main menu desserts were an apple tart, thin-sliced apples served on crispy puff pastry, painted with a translucent glaze and something like a chocolate lava bomb. It arrived looking like a simple cocoa colored cylinder. When cut, flowing chocolate pahoehoe spreads onto the plate, solidifying as it cools. The prix fixe desserts were... I forgot to note them since they just couldn't hold a candle to the lava bomb or the apple tarte.

As we left, the chef-owner arrived. We ended up chatting a bit in French - he's from Fontainebleau, not far from where my brother in law used to live. A genuine French chef! So, a trilingual lunch that mixed the cuisines of France, Morocco (the tagine), Spain (the chorizo) and India (the curry). Fun.

Overall, it was an interesting meal, and worth the money. Any meal where I come away with at least three ideas is educational money well spent, and at the rate tuition is increasing in the community college, more and more a bargain. I've already used the salad dressing and gastrique, albeit in modified forms to work in different menus.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Chef's Table, Rocklin

I'm famous at the Chef's Table, a.k.a "TCT". OK, I confess. I'm not famous. Not a bit. My pig, however, is. He looks something like this but in black and white:

The famous pig: Pure Porkiness!

The pig reclines on the vent hood above the bar, in all his monochromatic glory (I didn't take a set of color drawing tools to the restaurant, alas). He was penned in the days were the tables were covered with butcher paper. Now they're bare granite - or faux granite - in any case they're shiny, black and slightly reflective so you can see the magnificence of your dining partner reflected under their plate of pesto fries.

I'm amazed at the trendiness of the other diners. Latest coiffures, clothes, jewelry. Real state of the art trendiness, so trendy that I don't even know the current hipness babacool lingo to describe their scintillating awesomeness. Luckily, I just go for the food. My trendiness index is probably somewhere around 0.3 Camrys, so it's amazing they even let me enter.

These guys were so trendy that I can't even draw them without the latest cartoon pen.

They serve interpretations of American food. Burgers. Fried chicken. Fries. Upscale, though. Burgers and fried chicken, but not as you know them. Upscale, with fancy descriptions and innovative, fresh ingredients.

Tonight's burger was smothered in hot wing sauce burning chili heat englobing bits of blue cheese, topped with a whole pickle stabbed through the heart with a dull knife. Sounds painful, so it's a good thing that pickles probably can't feel pain. The burger was not for the meek: sour, hot, umami and hot again.

The bathroom is painted with blackboard paint. They supply chalk, so you can write anything you want. Most people write something like "TCT is awesome". That doesn't strike me as the acme of trendiness. I expected something more like "Je t'aime. Moi non plus. Passe les brownies au bacon, cherie". But nowhere did these words appear, and I had no desire to add them. French is no longer trendy, apparently. The torch has passed to somewhere else with a language that I almost certainly can't pronounce, let alone spell.

Tonight we watched a large table of VIP-type people eat stuff that wasn't on the menu, at least not our menu. Maybe there's a secret menu, kind of like In-N-Out only much more sophisticated. The kitchen whisked plate after non-menu plate to their table, while everyone else watched.

The process of acquiring this level of über trendiness, style and sophistication remains a mystery, although it was more than clear that these dishes were coming directly from the chef's imagination, arriving at their table with a flourish and brief explanation of the key ingredients and an occasional joke about pepper fin (he didn't serve any). It was, however, crystal clear that there was none of this fanfare for anyone else in the room, not even a crumb. No, you're not worthy.

The plates accumulated on their table, like diner kaiseki. Grilled corn on the cob (some confusion as to how to eat this), chicken-fried Angus beef, a Caprese salad full of tomatoes, daikon sprouts and some kind of whitish cubes that could have been mozzarella, chicken breast, tofu or all three.

As their dishes accumulated, our service slowed. You can't be everywhere at once, can you?

Curious about some of the plates they were receiving, we asked a passing server. His answer was terse, leaving no doubt that he'd rather not be bothered. He was busy. Questions not encouraged from the riffraff. It's not for you. It's for them. You can watch but not participate.

I find it strange that a tiny restaurant would provide this level of service to some while denying it to others, even though all groups are seated elbow to elbow in the same room. If there were a private room for VIP's, it would be clear. It could have a bouncer on guard in front of an airlock. That would keep out the undesirable and untrendy!

If there's a brown nose special, where you open a line of credit, have the chef make whatever he feels like and give you the opportunity to rub elbows with a culinary genius, wouldn't it make economic sense to give everyone access? If the house can pay a month's expenses in one night with one group, just imagine what they could do if anyone with sufficient credit and the proper elan could enjoy the same benefits?

Their web site is mute on the subject: there is no Chef's Special Prix Fixe menu.  I suppose asking to be admitted to the VIP club would be nekulturny in the extreme, since one does not ask. One either is or is not.

But fear not! In-N-Out will welcome you with open arms, and their secret menu is available to all who ask. I'd rather be a welcome guest in a cheapo burger chain than tolerated as second-class seat-filler. And their burgers aren't bad, either.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Summer Seafood Celebration

Champagne for starters
Italian Prosciutto and Alpina salami, fresh sweet basil
 Then on to the main wine: Soave

Rosemary & olive oil ciabatta

Swordfish with caper sauce, roast fennel, fennel purée, broiled heirloom tomato

We probably should have started with Pastis 51, considering that this was a birthday where we could match numbers - except I prefer Champagne and it goes better with food. All discussion of Champagne with dessert was quickly vetoed, since Annette already chose a nice bottle of Brut. Brut Champagne with sweet desserts tastes like vinegar mixed with lemon juice. Paired with savory dishes, however, the acid in the Champagne cleanses the palate and dances well with the food instead of peeing on its leg and stepping on its feet. This Champagne exuded aromas of fresh citrus with some grapefruit thrown in, not much yeast to speak of. It was destined for the charcuterie plate that came before the main course.

I love charcuterie plates, especially when I'm both chef and celebrant. All they need is decent plating, a garnish and people who aren't afraid of a bit of nitrites. These meats came via Claro's Italian Market, imported directly from Italy. Yes, there is a difference between real imported Prosciutto and that domestic stuff. Richer, fuller, perhaps a tad less salty. The Alpina salami is somewhat like the offspring of Prosciutto and Pancetta with a nice note of black pepper to keep things interesting.

We netted some nice bottles of Soave for the main course. This wine got lots of points from one of those Fancy Wine Guys, yet it's affordable (at least for now). Dry with nice notes of fruit, it's the ideal bride for most seafood. Since we hadn't yet been to the fish market, we would pick the fish to accompany the wine for an acid fruitiness tango with savory fin food.

The main course was supposed to be herb-grilled striped bass. Until we got to the fish market. Ugh. Those poor fish looked about four to five days old, slightly sunken eyes, gills removed, dull scales starting to present a rough appearance. So, 86 the bass. The Alaskan halibut looked nice - glistening thick steaks at $28 per pound. Ouch. How about swordfish?

Swordfish is one of those environmentally ambiguous fish species, going from Avoid to Best Choice, depending on its origin and how it was caught. If it's from the United States, odds are it's acceptable, so you can eat it without an extra helping of guilt. And it goes well with Soave.

Since the meal was centered on summer, the plate was finished with roast fennel, fennel purée and a thick slice of grilled heirloom tomato.

As it turns out, the fennel purée was the most complicated dish to prepare. First, the fennel was sliced into quarter inch slabs, placed on a parchment paper lined baking sheet with some garlic cloves,  sprinkled with EVOO, kosher salt and black pepper and placed in a 375° oven.

While the fennel was roasting, some chicken stock mixed with fresh thyme and bay leaves went on the stove, with a few sweet red peppers tossed in to soften.

The decorative, center sliced pieces of fennel were reserved for a garnish/vegetable. The rest got roughly chopped to medium dice, mixed with a bit of the stock, the baked garlic, and the rest of the sweet red peppers and puréed with a bit of EVOO added.

The heirloom tomatoes were cut into half inch rounds, sprinkled with a bit of EVOO, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper and set aside for broiling once the oven was free.

The fish was relatively simple, and could be done at the last minute. Sauté the steaks in a stainless steel pan, add white wine, capers, a bit of fine brunoise from the cooked sweet red peppers, sea salt, black pepper. Monter au beurre, add fresh squeezed lemon juice and pour over the fish when plating.

Next year, they promised to take me out for my birthday. I guess it's a balance between what this meal would cost in a restaurant and the fuss of preparing it at home (four people x charcuterie plate, Champagne, swordfish steaks. Two bottles of Soave. Dessert. Espresso coffee. Armagnac digestif = $$$$). Balance that with the risk of paying a lot of money and being disappointed - or cruising East L.A. for tacos, cemitas or tortas - or Monterey Park for dim sum and forgetting about anything fancy.