Basic BBQ (Grilled) Salmon

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A neighbour asked me the other day, “How do you do your BBQ salmon?” I laughed and said I did the same thing that everybody does. But I do have a few “secrets” which really help enhance the flavour of BBQ’d salmon (or any fatty fish for that matter).

Now before anyone in the East accuses me of confusing the difference between barbecuing and grilling–I wouldn’t dare confuse the low temperature smoke cooking done to make that mouth watering pulled pork, with simply throwing a chunk of steak on the grill (though there’s an art to that too). It’s just that on the coast we call grilling barbecuing.

So the trick to making a good piece of salmon into a great piece of salmon, is… salt. Pretty basic. Prior to grilling the salmon and prior to any other seasonings or marinades, I take the prepared piece of fish (fillet, steak, etc) and liberally sprinkle the exposed flesh with coarse pickling, kosher or other non-iodized salt then wrap it in a piece of clean linen or very clean dish towel and let it sit for 15-25 minutes depending on thickness. After this I rinse off the salt and pat dry with paper towel before continuing with adding marinades, spices, mirepoix or any other wonderful flavouring.

The salt does a couple of things. First it kills any lingering surface bacteria and removes any light “fishiness” that might cling to the meat, and secondly it takes moisture out of the flesh and subtly changes the texture. Why are these good things? Well the first one is pretty obvious, but in addition to freshening the fish it will also increase the shelf life of the fish by a few days–handy if you’re prepping fish for tomorrow’s dinner. The benefit of the second one is less obvious until you realize that if you remove moisture from anything it will naturally want to draw moisture back into itself, so if you replace the removed moisture with a marinade or a spice mixture it will draw that flavour back into the flesh–and that’s a win.

Aside from the salt cure, I follow some pretty basic guidelines for grilling:

  • First, fresh fish. It sounds simple, but most people don’t realize that when a fish smells strongly “fishy” it’s already gone. I’ll do a post later on how to buy good fish, but for now just remember that no smell is good smell
  • Second, skin on. If you’re using a marinade with sugar added, nothing is more heart wrenching (as a cook) than leaving chunks of caramelized fish clinging to the grill top. If you grill with the skin on you can always run a knife between the skin and the flesh and leave the skin on the grill for later cleaning. If you only have skin off fish then cook it on a sheet of well oiled aluminum foil (it will still stick, but not as badly and clean up is a snap).
  • Third, always test the thinnest part of the fish for doneness. If you check the thicker portion for doneness you will always end up with a rubbery tail section. Keep in mind that fish will continue to cook even after it’s left the grill.
  • Fourth, always oil the grill when hot. Doing so means less sticking. I got this tip from America’s Test Kitchen and it works. I use an oil soaked paper towel rubbed over the hot grill with tongs.
  • Finally, always a very hot grill. You can’t reasonably control the cooking time for a piece of fish by grilling it over low heat, also you don’t get that caramelized goodness from low temperature cooking.

Follow these basics and as long as you watch your cooking fish like a hawk, you’ll get good results every time.

Aaron

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How to Chop an Onion – An Idiot’s Guide

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I know it sounds a little silly. We all know how to cut an onion right? Peel and chop. Pretty simple. But what if you need to have reasonably consistent pieces? Or you need to work quickly without losing a digit in the process?

I used to watch the old Mexican street vendors preparing salsas. Those women could make short work of an onion and produce perfectly minced pieces without even using a cutting board. I’ve tried to copy their method (which involved cross scoring the onion) in my kitchen, but I was never able to duplicate it with any degree of skill, so I came up with my own way. While it doesn’t have the elegance of those skillful street vendors, it does a passable job in fairly short order.

Method:

  • Cut the top and bottom of the onion and peel.

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  • Half the onion. If there is a core (sometimes found on larger onions) cut a little V-notch in each half to remove.

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  • Turn the onion on the side and make fan shaped cuts to the onion’s centre at the desired width of the finished piece size.

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  • Cross cut the half against the grain, again at the desired width for the finished results. Use your fingers to keep the onion together as much as possible (not shown in the photo)

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  • Continue the cross cuts until complete.

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  • Break the pieces apart with your fingers to produce the finished product.

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The example pictured above is chopped coarsely, but much finer pieces are easily achievable using this method. It takes a little practice to perfect, but it’s worth the effort.

Aaron

Curry in a Hurry (sort of)

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Another day, another weekday meal.

Thursday’s are family split days. My wife heads off to yoga, while my daughter heads off to art class. I’m usually forced to make at least two separate meals–one before 6:00 pm when my daughter leaves and one after 7:00 pm when my wife returns. Keeping with the family tradition of always eating with at least one other family member, I usually prepare the kids an early meal and my wife and I a late one.

After a quick kids’ meal (today’s was fried ramen), I put on a pot of rice and dropped my daughter off at class. After returning home, I poured myself a drink and set to making a curry. I had chicken backs in the refrigerator,  so I went with that as the base.

Recipe: Andhra Pradesh Chicken

Spice Blend:

  • 2 tsp Amchur powder
  • 2 tsp Coriander, ground
  • 2 tsp Cumin, ground
  • 2 tsp Hot Indian paprika (or 1/2 to 1 Tsp dried chilies ground)
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon, ground
  • 1/4 tsp Nutmeg, ground
  • 1 tsp Sea salt
  • 1 Tsp Tumeric, ground

Marinade

  • 3 heaping tsp spice blend
  • 1 Tbs Light cooking oil
  • 1 tsp White vinegar
  • 1 Tbs Brown sugar
  • 1/2 Tbs Sambal oelek

Sauce

  • 4 Medium to large pieces of chicken, skinless bone in
  • 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1″ pc Ginger, peeled and grated
  • 3-4 Tbs light cooking oil (canola)
  • 10 Kari (curry) leaves
  • 2 Medium onions chopped
  • 1/4-1/2 c of finely chopped red bell peppers (or other vegetables)
  • 1-2 Tbs Sambal oelek (optional)
  • 1 15oz Can of diced tomatoes (or 2 lg tomatoes, chopped)
  • 1 c Chicken stock
  • Water
  • 2 Black cardomen pods, lightly crushed
  • 1/2-1 tsp Black pepper, fresh coarsely ground
  • 1 tsp Black mustard seeds
  • 2 tsp Cumin seeds
  • Balance of spice blend

Method:

  1. Prepare spice blend
  2. If using skin-on chicken remove skin and reserve
  3. Mix Marinade ingredients in a small bowl
  4. Combine chicken and marinade in a plastic bag, remove excess air and work the bag to distribute marinade evenly over the chicken and marinate for 1-4 hours
  5. Remove chicken from bag and grill or BBQ over medium heat until fully cooked (I usually do 10 min. bone side down, 10 min. meat side down and if necessary 5 min bone side down)
  6. While chicken is cooking start the sauce
  7. In a wok over a medium-high element heat oil
  8. Add kari leaves, cumin seed, and mustard seed and saute until the begin to crackle (a minute or two)
  9. Add onions and saute until just beginning to brown
  10. Add garlic and finely chopped bell peppers if using and saute one to two minutes more
  11. Add remaining spice blend, grated ginger, sambal, and cardamon pods and stir for one to two minutes until well combined
  12. Add tomatoes and combine
  13. Add a little water and a 1/4 c of the stock and bring to a low boil and cook for approximately 20 minutes adjusting heat as required
  14. Add stock as required during cooking process to keep the sauce consistent
  15. Taste and adjust salt level and acid balance if required (use a very small amount of brown sugar if the sauce is too sour)
  16. Add grilled chicken to the wok, coat it in the sauce, and add fresh ground black pepper
  17. simmer for five minutes, and serve

Notes: I’ve modified this recipe so much from its original form it bears only a passing resemblance to it–originally it called for cooking the chicken in the sauce and adding much more water to it, but I found the recipe above makes for a much more flavourful and richer curry. The above recipe calls for a long marinating time, but mine only sat in the bag for only 20 minutes while I prepared the vegetables–just do your best. I don’t mention it under the methods section, but if you have reserved chicken skin you can add one or two pieces to the sauce during the cooking process to add some depth–just remove it before serving. If you want to drop the heat level, reduce the amount of sambal and/or substitute Spanish or Hungarian paprika for the Indian Paprika (which is very hot). I would still add a 1/2 teaspoon or so of the ground chilies, as the flavour is essential for this dish. Keep in mind that the spice blend shown is more or less a personal preference. You can use garam masala in place of the cinnamon, nutmeg, amchur powder and some of the ground cumin and coriander if that’s your preference as well–I don’t because I find the cloves used in most garam masala to be too much for the chicken.

Tip: Always add fresh ground black pepper to a dish in the last ten minutes or less of cooking to preserve its delicate fresh flavour.

This dish serves four. Pair with a dry Belgium style blond ale (i.e. Fin-de-Monde) or a crisp spicy Indian lager (i.e. Kingfisher).

Adapted from Das Sreedharan, Indian Shortcuts to Success, “Marinated chicken with hot pepper sauce,” pp. 128-129, 2005.

Aaron

Coffee Anyone? – A stove-top espresso how to

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Gawd I love coffee. Strong black and bittersweet, coffee gets me going and keeps me there. At my house the six cup stove-top espresso maker (the lower portion pictured above) is king. While the full size steam or pump driven espresso machines and the stove-top coffee pot all produce espresso, this style of pot is referred to as macchinetta in Italian to distinguish it and the coffee it makes.

Ours is a stainless steel Bialetti unit. It has both stainless water and coffee reservoirs and a stainless filter unit. Due to some concern over the use of aluminum coffee pots, we made the switch about two decades ago. Whether the fear is real or imagined, I have seen the corrosion that coffee can be produced on aluminum pots and felt that I probably didn’t need any more base metals in my diet. This is our third unit. Through trial and error we found that constant torquing on the pouring handle while tightening the two main sections together will eventually lead to breakage (I’m not always the sharpest tool in the drawer). Tip #1: Don’t tighten the two pieces using the handle for leverage.

It took a while to determine the optimal grind of coffee to get a full flavoured brew. Initially we opted for the “stove-top espresso” grind at the local Starbucks, but found that even with tight packing it always produced a weak espresso. Gradually we changed to a grind somewhere between “filter” and full on “espresso” grind, and stopped packing it very tightly. Since purchasing a burr grinder about eight years ago, we’ve settled on a grind one notch up from espresso (not very scientific I know, but it closely resembles the grind we used to buy). You should be aiming to find a grind that balances body/flavour without being too fine. Tip #2: Find your grind.

With the grind figured out, the next step was filling the water reservoir. We used to be very cavalier about the how much water we put in. You should be careful to keep the water level below the steam escape valve that all these units come with. A friend (not me this time) recounts the story of an accidentally submerged steam escape valve exploding off the base with enough force to embed it in the wall of his apartment. Tip #3: Always leave the steam escape valve above the level of the water in the reservoir.

We also used to be pretty loose with the water used in the unit, but we found that the chlorine in water treatment and the hardness of the tap water effected the quality of the coffee–particularly when we traveled outside of our home base (which has fairly soft low chlorinated water). Now we use filtered water. It makes a difference, particularly with a high acid coffees like those found in Central America. Tip #4: Use filtered or bottled water when possible.

Filling the coffee filter unit is something of an art depending on the grind you’ve settled on. I learned to make coffee from an old Italian who had been making it literally since childhood, and he was always insistent upon packing the coffee firmly but not tightly into the filter. Overpacking the filter with fine ground coffee will cause the coffee to “burn” as the heated water is forced to try and get through the tight plug of coffee–i.e. the water will superheat under pressure and leech bitter alkaloids into your finished brew. I slightly overfill the reservoir and then tamp it level with the rim using light finger pressure. I call it an art because it takes practice to get it right–not tight enough and you can see water left in the coffee filter unit when you open it, too tightly and you’ll see that the coffee has taken on a nasty black colour. Tip #5: Tamp the coffee into the filter keeping it level with the rim of the filter unit.

One more thing about filling the filter unit that you’ll notice the minute you do it incorrectly–always make sure the lip of the filter has no grounds stuck to it. It will break the seal between the water and coffee reservoirs and allow steam and water to escape. Tip #6: Always clean the lip of the filter unit.

Now that the coffee is in the filter, screw the coffee and water reservoirs together tightly, and start brewing. I always do this at high heat, but if you have time doing it medium high or even medium heat will often produce a richer cup of coffee. Watch the coffee as it slowly fills the reservoir. The time to take it off the heat is when the rich coffee “crema” (the light mocha coloured foam) starts to pour from the inlet pipe in the centre of the reservoir. If you leave it until the steam flows from the inlet valve you will again end up with a poor product as the steam and residual water heat the grounds and leech bitterness into the now finished coffee. Tip #7: Remove the pot from the heat as the crema forms and before the steam begins to escape.

If all as gone according to plan you’ve ended up with a rich full bodied espresso ready to tip into your preheated demitasse and enjoy… or like if you’re like us, use it to make “Americano” style coffee (I really hate this made-up term) by adding 2 parts hot water to 1 part espresso–creating basically a heavy-weight, North American style coffee.

Aaron

PS You’ll notice I haven’t made any recommendations about what kind of coffee to use. Ultimately, it’s a matter of personal choice, but we’ve found that most coffee sold for espresso use is generally over roasted. Look at the beans in a true Italian coffee shop and you’ll see they are a blend of lighter and darker roast beans–but never black. Pass on the French Roast or even the Espresso roast found at most retailers and look for a good, full bodied, medium dark roast coffee (dark but not too dark). My preference is for low acid Indonesian coffees (usually grown in volcanic soil), but many people like the high acid Central American beans–let taste be your guide.

Saturday Dinner

Sometimes mana from heaven drops into your lap. The mana in this case was a lamb leg roast picked up at a good discount from one of the local supermarkets. The roast was fresh, about 2 lbs (.888 kg), and 30% off the usual horrendously over-inflated price. I was faced with the problem of pulling together a meal around this choice cut of meat that would satisfy all around the table. The kids are true carnivores, so no immediate problems with the main course, but the question was what to serve with the meat that would get eaten and give them the required dose of vegetables and/or fruit. I opted for a basic meat and potatoes affair with a side of fresh green beans (just coming into season… at least in California) and a fruit appetizer in the form of ripe papya and lime.

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Lamb Leg Butt Roast ready to go

The meal plan was as follows:

  1. Papaya quarters with lime
  2. Roast lamb leg butt
  3. Roast new potatoes
  4. Blanched green beans
  5. Mushroom cream sauce
  6. Drinks: Milk for the kids and Malbec for us

Cooking and prep time: About 90 minutes

The plan of attack was to get the roast in the oven and leave the balance of prep and cooking for the anticipated hour of cooking time for the meat. Unfortunately, the meat cooked much faster than expected–about 40 minutes–and I was left scrambling to get the rest of the meal prepared in time. The beans were a breeze, while time was short on the potatoes. The sauce was well under way before the meat was ready, but I was still forced to let the meat rest a little longer than anticipated in order to get the meal fully ready.

Here’s a quick tip if you find yourself faced with the same situation. Take the meat out of the oven when ready (about five degrees Fahrenheit less than the desired finishing temperature), wrap it in tin foil, wrap it in a thick tea towel, and slip it into an insulated lunch kit or similar container. It will stay warm without further cooking for 15 to 20 minutes.

Using the above trick and with a little luck, I was able to pull everything together. We ate about an hour and ten minutes after the meat hit the oven–not bad all things considered.

Lamb Leg Roast

  • Lamb leg butt roast (about 2 lbs)
  • Spice rub
  • Olive oil

Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
Rub meat generously with spice rub (either store bought or home made)
Lightly oil enamelled casserole dish or stove-top safe roasting pan.
Heat casserole on the stove top over medium-high heat.
Sear roast on all sides (1 to 2 minutes a side).
Place uncovered in oven and cook for approximately 20-25 minutes a pound (look for an internal temperature of about 130 degrees F).
Remove from oven, wrap in tin foil and let rest for a minimum of 5 minutes.
Slice and serve.

Notes: I like my lamb very rare, but others prefer it more on the medium rare side. When in doubt with guests go for the medium rare (remove from oven at 135F). On larger cuts of lamb, pierce the meat and insert fine slivers of fresh garlic and/or whole peppercorn. Always cook dry lamb roast with a meat thermometer–it eliminates guess work and gives better results (even if you overcook it, you’ll learn where the tipping point is and hopefully get it right the next time).

Aaron