Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Cooking With Top Chef 1.27.2010

Jenn Murphy of Sweet Water is back again with two more Top Chef season 6 dishes. Enjoy!

I think the name of this dish is a bit misleading. However, to list all of the starring components in the title might cause you to faint from hunger before you even get through reading it.

This is one of those special dishes where, to quote the great Tom Colicchio (and other random, lesser notables), "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts."

Bites of each ingredient on its own are tasty in their own right. But a single bite including a taste of each component part makes the dish a whole other thing; an experience unto itself.

Yes, I'm gushing.

But the thing is, I'm in awe of someone who can take all these separate ingredients and make them work not just as a harmonious whole but also showcase each ingredient independently of the rest.

I'm gonna go ahead and guess that that's part of what made Michael Voltaggio the winner of Top Chef this season.

So, about the dish...

I know it seems a bit summery for, well, the dead of winter but it was just what I was looking for after all the holiday heaviness. Refreshing and light.

An important note, I used Atlantic Cod, not Black Cod as in the original.

Did you know that Black Cod isn't even really Cod, it's sablefish?

No? Neither did I.

"Knowing is half the battle."
G.I. Joe (Real American Hero)

I am very aware of the issues of sustainability and over-fishing of this fish. In fact that's partly why I chose to use it and not Black Cod.

I'm a Newfie (half-Newfie anyways) and my family in Newfoundland was greatly affected by the moratorium placed on the cod fishery by the Canadian government 15 years ago.

Atlantic Cod is part of my heritage, and I wanted to give it a moment in the culinary spotlight (however faint the spotlight of this blog might be.)

There is some good news for the Atlantic Cod. It is being successfully farmed and wild Cod stocks have recovered to the point where limited fishing is being once again allowed off the coast of Newfoundland.

Proof cod fishing has re-opened? We have a freezer full of the stuff, brought back from my Dad's trip "down home" this past summer.

But now back to Michael Voltaggio and his delicious creation.

It's been a while since I cooked anything Asian inspired. I almost forgot how much I love it.

Each ingredient was so vibrant but so balanced. All the bright citrus contrasted with the earthiness of the dashi broth and the delicate cod.

And then there was the watermelon. That was the most surprising part of the dish for me. I wasn't totally sure how watermelon would fit in with citrus, fish and Asian flavours. But the watermelon really tied everything together.

So amazing!

There was a lot of prep for this dish (my arm hurt from zesting) but the actual cooking was totally simple.

And so good! Did I mention it was good?

Here's the recipe:

Dashi with Miso Cured Cod
(adapted from Michael Voltaggio)

1 lb. fillet cod
1 cup miso paste
1/4 cup mirin
1//4 cup tamari soy sauce
5 sheets kombu
3 cups water
1 cup bonito flakes
2 cups shitake mushrooms (sliced very thinly)
1 tbsp. grated ginger
3 oranges (zest and juice)
3 lemons (zest and juice)
1/4 cup soy sauce
6 roma tomatoes (peeled and sliced thinly)
1 bunch green onions (green parts only) sliced thin
1/4 large seedless watermelon
1 lime (zest and juice)
1 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

Mix miso, mirin, and tamari soy sauce together. Spread on sheet tray. Place fish on tray flesh side down. Marinate for an hour. Place kombu in pot with 3 cups water. Bring to a boil and immediately remove from heat. Add bonito flakes. Steep mixture for 3 minutes. Place sliced shitakes in a bowl and pour steeped kombu mixture through a strainer and over the mushrooms. Add ginger and allow to come to room temp. Chill mixture over ice bath. Add orange, lemon and lime zest and juices, tomatoes, green onions and soy sauce. Cut watermelon into 2 inch thick rectangles and marinate in lime zest, juice and olive oil. Remove fish from marinade. Wipe off excess cure and Pat dry thoroughly with paper towel. Cut into serving sized portions and slowly sear in a pan with oil (skin side down.) Sear until skin is crispy then flip and finish cooking. Allow fish to rest.

Place marinated watermelon in bowl and spoon in dashi broth. Place fish on top. Garnish with green onion.

Three out of the four Top Chef recipes that I have recreated thus far have been Kevin's.

What's with that?

When I look at the list of recipes that I copied down from the Bravo website (no criteria other than instinctive stomach growling) there is a fair mixture of the different chefs. But something about Kevin's dishes have just drawn me to make them first.

Maybe it's the apparent simplicity of Kevin's food that makes it seem like a good way to wade into Top Chef re-creationism.

Or maybe it's the obvious comfort food aspect of Kevin's cooking. The stick-to-your-ribs ingredients and preparations are perfect for this time of the year.

Still, maybe it's because when I start out to cook one of Kevin's dishes I recognize that my Mom would have loved it. The flavours are bold, but simple. The ingredients stand on their own. There's no completed technique or scientific component to cloud the experience of the food. It's just straightforward good cooking and a wonderful understanding of flavours and how to bring disparate components together on a plate.

The simplicity in Kevin's dishes is derived in part from his focus on local, sustainable and organic ingredients. This is another reason I'm drawn to his recipes.

When you look at Kevin's food, at the same time thinking about his food philosophy, you can't help but realize the simple logic of a focus on the ingredients in your immediate environment.

"What grows together, goes together."


Kevin's food is harmonious. It is comfortable. Most importantly it is damn good.

And that is in no small part due to his food philosophy.

For this week's Top Chef recipe I cooked one of Kevin's finale dishes; the one inspired by his mother. There was something about the decadence of cooking just the chicken skin for the dish (after so many years of eating skinless chicken breast I couldn't resist!) That and the squash puree that Tom Colicchio specifically complimented Kevin on totally called out to me.

Southern Fried Chicken Skin with Squash Casserole and Tomato
1/2 onion julienned
1 tbsp. butter
2 cloves garlic mashed
* 1 1/2 cups butternut squash diced into even pieces
3 tbsp heavy cram
lemon juice to taste
2 cups cherry tomatoes
skin from one chicken
1 tbsp. cayenne pepper
1 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp pepper
1 tbsp salt
frying oil
olive oil

* I used 2 small carnival squashes that I received in my Good Food Box. The taste is quite similar to butternut squash but milder.

Chicken Skin:
Remove skin from chicken. Remove all fat from skin (should have only thin layer of skin remaining.) Place in small bowl or ziploc bag and add salt, pepper, cayenne, sugar. Rub mix all over skin. Refrigerate for at least one hour. Blot dry with paper towel. Fry in oil at 370 degrees until golden brown. Break into shards.

While chicken skin is refrigerating: Saute onion and garlic in butter over medium heat until lightly caramelized. Add diced squash to onions. Reduce heat to low and simmer until squash in fully tender (about 30 mins.) Add cream to squash mixture.
Transfer squash to blender (or hand blend) on high. Season with s&p and lemon juice to taste. Pass through chinois. Reserve mixture.

Score tomatoes. Blanch them in boiling water and then shock in ice bath. Peel skins.
Season with s&p and olive oil.

To Serve:
Spoon squash mixture onto bottom of plate. Top with tomatoes. Sprinkle on chicken skin shards.

I know Kevin wasn't totally on his game in the final challenge and I know that (obviously) it wasn't the favourite dish of the day. But it was still a damn good dish.

For me it was another experience of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.

On it's own, the chicken skin was pretty salty for my taste and the tomatoes, well, I wasn't sure I understood their role at first. The squash, on the other hand I could eat anytime, anywhere, under just about any circumstance.

A bite of all the components together though? Suddenly the chicken skin is refreshed by the tomato and balanced again with the earthy squash. The citrus of the squash cuts through the density of the chicken and adds brightness to the raw tomato.

Each ingredient is most effective in bringing out the notes of the others.

Another Top Chef success!

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