Thursday, May 28, 2009

Halibut with Cucumber Salad and Soy-Mustard Dressing

I know that MP is the chef here, but this is what I ate for lunch yesterday:

Seriously. I made this. You may be suitably impressed now.

This recipe comes from Food and Wine magazine and can be found online here. Provided the soy sauce is gluten-free (Bragg Liquid Amino Acids, revolting as it sounds, is a good choice) it's a nice dish for the dietarily challenged.

The key is taking what you have and making the dish your own. The original recipe is for grouper, but I used halibut. I do not have a mandoline and there was no way I was "folding" cucumber slices. (Although you do need to prop the fish up out of the dressing; a short stack of cucumber works, too.) There's a lot of latitude for personal tastes in Dale Gartland's dish, and that's what makes it a good recipe.

Prep time may be the only thing that stops people from making this. The dressing comes together in a snap. Do not fear the specialized ingredients — mirin is a sweetened cooking wine and used in teriyaki sauces (make your own gluten-free version), rice vinegar is a lovely low-acid vinegar for summer dressings, and white vermouth can be substituted for sake. The fish prep was easy. It's the vegetables that are tough.

A food processor with the right blade can crank out the carrot and radish easily. But the shallots, the garlic, the chile... That's some knife work. And cucumbers are essential, but don't do so well in the food processor. Cucumbers are water trapped by sunshine, so you MUST remove the seeds if you do not use a seedless cucumber or you will end up with a soggy wad of pulp. Nope, the veggies will take up most of the prep time. It's worth it.

You may be tempted to skip the sesame seeds and frizzled shallots/garlic. Don't. Pace yourself. Besides, frizzling is fun. In one pan, you can toast the seeds, then frizzle the shallots and garlic, and then use the flavored oil to cook the fish (pat the fish off so it's dry; makes for a better crust).

What is rewarding about Gartland's dish is the contrast of flavors and textures: soft and cool, sweet and crunchy, salty and green. If you skip any of the ingredients, you will undoubtedly make a tasty entrée, but you will miss out on the fun of discovering new combinations with each bite.

There are so many wonderful things in this world to eat. Don't limit yourself.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Star of Bethlehem

According to the USDA I grew up in Zone 5. Not that they track me personally; I’ve just always been fascinated by their brightly banded map, and wherever I go I ultimately want to know if lemon trees are possible (not hardy below Zone 9-10) and daffodils work (doesn’t get cold enough above Zone 8).

In practical terms this means because I didn’t grow up here, there’s stuff out in my yard I’ve never seen before.

A few years back I was mowing and found flowers where I had never planted any. The leaves looked like garlic chives, but longer and fallen over, with small white flowers, a few to each cluster. It was quite pretty, actually, and I wondered who would randomly plant stuff in the middle of a yard out by the curb.

I mowed around it, went back, and dug it up. This was harder than I thought, because the bulbs it grew from (again, like garlic chives or spring onions) were easily 6-8 inches down, and I mangled several before I got enough to transplant into my flower bed. I had no idea what it was. I assumed it was some sort of wild allium (garlic/onion type plant) or bulb. It’s grown up very nicely, and this year I took some pictures.

Gardeners probably seem rather solid and boring (old people with stone figurines growing way too many zucchini), but the truth is, we’re risk-takers. Who do you think invented zucchini bread? Crazy stuff. Seeing only pictures in a catalog, we decode a few bits of information (like zone hardiness, shade tolerance, and mature height), calculate whether or not we have room (and if it’s something we want, we always do), and send away for little bare-rooted sticks or knobby tubers or packets of seeds that look like alien gallstones. We stick these things in the dirt. We wait. A risky business.

Sometimes it pays off. When MP first saw the peach tree, he looked at me and asked, “Which end is up?” Six years and 30 pounds of peaches later, I apparently guessed right. Then sometimes things don’t go well, and one must rectify the mistakes. This happens to both my mother and her mother — a lot.

Currently my mother is ripping up sweet woodruff (“They said it was a groundcover. No lie!”) while my grandmother has spent 20+ years going at the lily of the valley (“It grows up places I never put it!”). Neither one has made much headway. Interestingly enough, my mother cannot get lily of the valley to grow — and she lives in the woods. What both my mother and grandmother agree upon is that STAR OF BETHLEHEM MUST DIE.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because it grows everywhere! All the time!” my mother answered.

Grandma was more specific. “Because it gets yecchy.”

Okay… Over time they revealed that star of bethlehem, while pretty, is invasive, crowding out everything growing around it. After blooming, the grassy leaves get rather slimy and can’t be pulled out. It’s pretty for 2 weeks and annoying for 4 months.

I year or so ago I was at a plant sale hosted by a gardener friend of mine, and in her flower bed I saw the unknown little thing I’d rescued from my yard. “How cute!” I exclaimed, “Would you sell me some?”

“Oh God, that. No. You don’t want it.”

“But I already have some and I like it. What–?”

“Kill it.”

“But I like it! What is it?”

“Star of bethlehem.”

I had nursed a viper in my bosom! (Is that not one of the most wacked out sayings imaginable? No wonder it fell out of favor somewhere about 1910…) However, the truth is… I’ve never had a problem with it. It’s at the edge of the flowerbed, and though I occasionally mow over it in the summer, it always comes back in the spring. Look at it — isn’t it cheerful? Don’t the little while flowers look so happy to greet the springtime? Doesn’t its green center look like a Jell-O mold? I still don’t know how it got out in my yard. Maybe some disgusted person flung it there. Maybe a bird carried it off a compost pile. Nature’s mysteries abound.

“You watch it,” my mother warned me, “You’ll be sorry.” But she’s been saying that to me for decades now about this or that, and I’m still here. A lot depends on soil type and micro-climate, so maybe where I have it now it will remain in control. It marks a point in the springtime when the daffodils are gone but the azaleas aren’t quite ready to show. I’d hate to lose it.

Sometimes you have to take risks.