Friday, January 6, 2012

Salmon Stew with Lentils/Roasted Vegetables

When you write about your food experiences, you tend to get a lot of food-related items from Santa for Xmas. This year, among other things, I happily unwrapped a bottle of sherry vinegar (you wouldn't believe how difficult it is to find this), a basket-of-the-month from iGourmet, a long-sleeved t-shirt with a local pizzeria logo on it, and (of course) a new cookbook, The Family Meal, by the legendary Spanish chef Ferran Adria and his wonderstaff at the now-shuttered El Bulli. Chef Adria is known worldwide as the godfather of molecular gastronomy, morphing El Bulli from an ordinary eatery into a temple of culinary wizardry, devising meals that were mind-bending as much as they were stomach-filling. With this in mind, one would think that El Bulli would be the least likely source for a cookbook of simple, humble food, yet this is exactly what has been produced, namely a collection of 3-course meals (appetizer, entree, and dessert) that were prepared in the kitchen for the staff to eat (commonly referred to in restaurant parlance as the "family meal") before getting down to the business of chemistry and magic for the paying customers. The book itself is a welcome departure from the run-of-the-mill cookbook, containing lots of step-by-step pictures, adjusted ingredient lists to scale up (or down) each recipe for 2, 6, 20, or 75 people, very thorough indices (greatly appreciated by anal-retentive you-know-who), and even a cooking timeline for each meal so the home cook can at least attempt to have all 3 parts on the table simultaneously, everything designed to make life easy for the home cook. I was really anxious to try it out and picked a salmon stew with roasted vegetables (plus a white chocolate cream for dessert, which I skipped this time) as my trial recipe, hoping that both Mrs. Hackknife and the progeny would be willing to give it a spin.

Once I started to dig into the heavier details of the recipes, I discovered one reason why the recipes seemed so easy - a lot of the base ingredients (such as stocks, sauces, etc.) are outlined for separate bulk preparation in a front section of the book (this, of course, is how restaurant kitchens really work), then when the time comes to actually cook the meal, you've already completed some of the grunt work. For the salmon stew, I needed to whip up a batch of picada (described by Adria as "an aromatic sauce traditionally used in Catalan cuisine as a base flavoring", containing saffron, garlic, parsley, olive oil, and hazelnuts, sort of a Spanish pesto) and a separate preparation of sofrito (another base flavoring, this one containing garlic, olive oil, onions, thyme, rosemary, bay leaf, tomatoes, and salt). Since I was making the smallest serving size of stew (i.e., for 2 people), I only needed 2 tsp. and 1 Tbsp., respectively, of each sauce, but a lot of the recipes in the book call for these flavorings, so I put the excess into ice cube trays in single-tsp. increments to be frozen for later use. Making the picada appeared to be straightforward:

1. Wrap 1 tsp. of saffron threads in foil and toast in a warm frying pan for a few seconds (I had a complex about ruining the saffron, which costs about $10 a container, so I kept it in the pan for a very short time, not knowing if it really even toasted or not).
2. Mix 1 clove garlic, 2/3 cup parsley leaves, the toasted (or not-toasted) saffron, and 2.5 Tbsp. olive oil in a bowl. Use a hand blender to make a coarse paste (apparently, they must have been using better hand blenders at El Bulli than mine here in the Commissary, since mine can't really chop up much unless it's primarily in liquid form - I had to punt and use a small food processor instead).
3. Add 1/4 c. of toasted, blanched hazelnuts and continue to process into a fine paste.

The last step is where the trouble started. It's not easy to find hazelnuts in the store - all I could located was a bag of hazelnuts in the shell. If you've ever tried to remove a hazelnut shell, you're in for a treat. I needed a meat hammer to pound them off, spraying shards all over the Commissary in the process. That's not the worst part, though. In order to blanch the nuts, you have to remove the tight skin covering the inner nut after de-shelling. This allegedly is accomplished by either 1) roasting them in a hot oven for 20 minutes or 2) soaking them in boiling water. I tried both methods and still couldn't get the damn skins off, having to resort to laboriously scraping each nut under running water using my fingernails to finally get the job done (thank God I only needed 1/4 c. of them). I now understand why El Bulli was an expensive restaurant - apparently, you need a dedicated staff member (or a nut purveyor that employs slave labor) just for prepping hazelnuts. I can assure you that I will be avoiding future Family Meal recipes that use picada unless I can get hazelnuts that have already been worked over.

Making the sofrito was a little bit better:

1. Puree 1 garlic clove into paste using a hand blender (again, mine was not up to the task, so I smashed it with a fork - the garlic, that is, not the blender).
2. Fry the garlic paste in 2 tsp. of olive oil on medium heat until browned (I gave up on browning after about 10 minutes, not wanting bitter, overcooked garlic)
3. Add 1 1/3 c. finely chopped onion, a pinch each of thyme and rosemary, and 1/6 of a bay leaf and cook until the onion is browned.
4. Add about 1 1/3 Tbsp. of tomato puree (I MacGyver'ed some puree up using 3 parts tomato paste to 5 parts water) and cook for 30 minutes.
5. Add another 1/3 Tbsp. of tomato puree and cook for another 30 minutes.

With my 2 base sauces done, I was finally free to proceed with the actual recipes. I made the roasted vegetables first:

1. Preheat oven to 400F.
2. Drizzle a large eggplant and a large red pepper with 2 Tbsp. olive oil, place in a roasting pan, and sprinkle with salt.
3. Wrap 2 medium onions in foil and add to the roasting pan. Roast the vegetables for 45 minutes.
4. Let vegetables cool, then remove the blackened skin and the seeds from the pepper. Cut the stem off the eggplant and remove the outer skin. Cut the peeled eggplant and peppers into 1/4" strips.
5. Unwrap the onions, remove the outer layers, and quarter them. Arrange all of the vegetables in a serving dish.
6. Make a vinaigrette using the juices from the roasting pan, 1 tsp. of sherry vinegar, and 2 Tbsp. olive oil. Season with salt and drizzle the vinaigrette over the vegetables.

Last up was the salmon:

1. Remove the skin (and any bones, if need be) from 11 oz. of salmon fillets and cut into 1" cubes.
2. Finely chop the leaves from 2.5 sprigs of parsley.
3. Pour 2 tsp. of olive oil and 1 Tbsp. of sofrito into a saucepan over medium heat. Cook for 1 minute. Add 1 3/4 c. fish stock (I used store-bought) and bring to a boil.
4. Add 1 1/4 c. canned lentils and 2 tsp. picada. Simmer for 10 minutes.
5. Season the salmon pieces with salt and add to pan. After 1 minute, carefully turn pieces over (to avoid breakage) and season with more salt if needed.
6. Add chopped parsley and serve in bowls.

I have to say that everything came together fine and tasted relatively good, with the vegetables garnering a little more praise than the salmon from the family. The stew was a little bland in my estimation, which could have been the result of store-bought stock (instead of homemade) or my lack of skill in making the flavoring bases (i.e., sofrito and picada - I might need a little more practice with these), or both. Anyway, I fully plan on cracking the book open for another round of simple meals once we return from Grand Cayman in a couple of weeks.

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