Tuesday, May 29, 2012

California Wild Salmon is in Season

It has been much cooler here this week -- more than 10 degrees lower than previous weeks, because marine air is coming into the Bay Area from the Pacific Ocean (west to east), we call it “on shore” breezes, aka fog. When hot inland air blows from east to west toward the ocean it’s called “off shore” breezes, which cause warmer weather. The Bay Area is known for its micro climates, where the coastal areas, including San Francisco, are always cooler in summer than the surrounding inland areas. Where I live, about 30 miles to the south of San Francisco, it’s normally 10° F warmer;  in the East Bay, 15+ miles east of the City, and in Marin, 20+ miles north, it’s often 15-20° F warmer (or more). This is the Bay Area’s typical summer weather pattern, when San Francisco is covered in its famous fog for most of the morning and evening. When I was living in the City (for 10 years), I would visit friends in warmer areas outside of the city almost every weekend – anywhere  to the south, east and north – to get tan. When returning to San Francisco in the evening, I got hit with the cool ocean fog, which covers the entire City. Fog is misty and mysterious – it calms down everything, including sunburned skin. It covers the hills and even the moon.  It ‘s cold but romantic. 

 Summer is also wild salmon season in California (from April to November), for both recreational /sport and commercial fishing. For the last 2 years, salmon fishing was banned completely by California Fish and Game to protect declining fish populations (coho salmon fishing is still prohibited). Instead, we had to eat fatty farm-raised salmon or the normally-frozen Alaskan dark red sockeye salmon. However local salmon, popularly called king salmon (Chinook), which you can fish just outside of San Francisco Bay, is fantastic. King salmon is very delicious and grows quite big ... to 40-50 pounds or more.  I went salmon fishing more than a few times, even though I am not a big fan of fishing, and it was not much fun. Why?

1) It is not easy to catch the fish, and the maximum catch is only two per person (although two are often enough to feed more than a dozen people easily).

2) You have to spend more than half a day on the boat on rough ocean, and most people get sea sick even before the boat reaches the fishing spot. I have seen many people miserably sick, their whole day ruined when they were expecting to have a wonderful time. It is not like going fishing for trout at a warm inland pond or lake. A super-fresh catch is great nonetheless. The fisherman helps you to clean the fish (scales and gut are removed as soon as a fish is brought onto the boat). I am not crazy about fishing, but tasting truly fresh fish is incredible. On one occasion I filleted the fish immediately, then sliced it up thin and cured it with salt and sugar, put crushed white peppercorn and fresh dill sprigs on top, then drizzled with lemon juice and waited about 15 minutes (this action is all on the boat on choppy water). Instant “Gravlax”! We served it on sliced baguette with honey mustard mayonnaise and fresh dill leaves on the top as canapés… with chilled white wine, of course. It was heaven. On another occasion, for a sandwich, I simply sautéed the fish with butter, salt and ground white pepper, and enveloped it in bread with fresh dill and butter lettuce (also on the boat). I felt like I became a fisherman when I saw how everyone loved it. Even friends who got bad seasickness enjoyed the experience after a glass of wine and my food. I don’t think I will be able to be a fisherman, but I don’t mind cooking on a boat. I have experience!

  How I cook salmon at home:  grilled, broiled, steamed, or sautéed with butter and finished with a little white wine and cognac to flambé. When grilling salmon, I sometimes sprinkle some brown sugar in addition to salt and pepper as seasoning. The brown sugar caramelizes on the fish, making it taste richer and look more attractive.

For steaming, place the fish on a bed of julienned vegetables such as leek, fennel, scallion, etc. in a shallow baking dish or dinner soup bowl. Season with salt and freshly ground white or chili pepper, one or two tablespoons white wine and a few slices of lemon on top of the fish. Place it in a hot steamer with a cover and cook about 7-8 minutes. I like to serve it with a sauce of half soy sauce half lemon juice, or cilantro/green chili puree, or basil/Italian parsley pesto, etc. For me, there will also be a bowl of freshly cooked rice, always.  

Sautéed Salmon with Fennel and Leek
Serves 2

2 pieces (5 to 6 ounces each) skinless salmon fillet
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 small bulb fennel, halved lengthwise, cored, sliced and rinsed
1 small leek (white part only), halved lengthwise, sliced and rinsed
1 clove of garlic, minced
¼ cup dry white wine (e.g., sauvignon blanc, white vermouth)
¼ cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon lemon juice (optional)
1 teaspoon chopped fresh tarragon or dill (optional)
Salt and fleshly ground white pepper

Season lightly both side of the salmon with salt and pepper

Melt the butter with olive oil in a skillet or sauté pan over medium heat. Add the fennel and leek. Cook, stirring, until soft (about 2 minutes) then add the garlic, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

Add the wine and bring to boil, then place the salmon in the pan. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer about 6-7 minutes (do not overcook; the center of salmon should be pink and moist).

Transfer the salmon to plates and keep warm. Add the cream to the pan, increase the heat and boil the sauce until thick... about 1 minute. Swirl in the lemon juice and tarragon if using. Adjust salt and pepper for the sauce. Pour the sauce over the salmon.

 Serve the salmon with blanched asparagus, spinach or boiled small Yukon potatoes, etc. 

 Wine suggestions: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Rose and Pinot Noir if you like red wine.

 Kitchen note: I use white pepper for all seafood and chicken breasts. White pepper is milder, less spicy than black, plus it will look better on the food (I don’t like black pepper spots on the white flesh or white sauce). If you do not like white pepper, you may substitute with a small amount of chili powder.

Good salt is very important for the final result of a dish. I do not use the white sand-like salt that comes in the round blue package. The same brand now sells kosher salt, but it isn't very good. It has a sweet, strange chemical taste, unlike the Diamond Crystal brand I normally use. I have a dozen different kinds of salt in my kitchen. For general purpose cooking, I use kosher salt; for Japanese cooking, I use Japanese sea salt (not too salty; I have several different varieties); for grilled/broiled meat I prefer gray sea salt from Ile de Ré of France’s Atlantic marshes, which makes grilled meat very delicious. You can taste the difference.

Important fish information:

What is the Difference between Wild and Farmed Salmon?                                       

Without additives, the flesh of farm-raised salmon would not have the familiar deep pink color, but would be gray.

 “Atlantic” salmon is synonymous with farmed salmon. Despite its country of origin -- Norway, Chile, or Canada, for example -- Atlantic salmon are nearly extinct in the United States and Canada and are unavailable commercially. In Alaska, wild salmon are abundant and farming is currently illegal. Therefore, “from Alaska” or “Alaskan” always means wild. If the salmon is not labeled “wild” or “Alaskan” or “Local” it is probably farmed (currently over 90% of salmon in consumer markets in the U.S. is farmed, and we can get it all year round).

  If it is fresh during the winter, it’s also probably farmed. Most wild salmon are harvested and available fresh only during the spring, summer, and fall (May through September). Wild salmon available during the winter is either fresh-frozen, canned, or smoked.
 If there are white lines of fat running through the flesh, it is most likely farmed. Farmed salmon spend their lives in small, densely crowded pens where they are hand-fed a pellet diet. A wild salmon migrates thousands of miles through the open ocean, hunting its food and avoiding predators. This makes wild fish relatively leaner, with less visible fat.

Note: Most white flesh fish Tilapia, Catfish, Trout and Tiger prawn in ordinary markets are farmed.
Do you know salmon is cheaper than it was 20 years ago? It’s because most of them are farmed (mass-produced, just like chicken). “Fish farmers” have been working on genetically engineering  salmon, and have succeeding in raising bigger and fatter fish in a short amount of time (Atlantic salmon grow more slowly during the winter, but engineered salmon, “souped-up” with modified growth-hormone genes from other fish, reach market size in about half the normal time).

In my experience, farmed salmon are so oily and smelly that you need bleach to get rid of the smell from the cutting board after cleaning/cutting the fish. They also produce a lot of smoke when you grill, bake or broil them. Now you know why.

News about GMO fish labeling...

Telling Chinook from Coho salmon...
from California Dept of Fish & Game

Monday, May 14, 2012

Quick Chocolate Cake -- a treat for yourself

  When I saw a post about a mini-chocolate cake, I thought it was a great idea... just one small cake to make for treating yourself. It is easy to make, needs no butter or refined sugar, and is gluten-free. I experimented a couple times to come up with a recipe, and the result is pretty good.  Also you may substitute ricotta cheese (which works better in cooked/baked items than yogurt) for the yogurt. 

As the author says in the post, “There are so many things I love about this cake… two [are]: It has no oil, butter, or refined sugar in it. And I cooked it in the microwave. I wasn’t intending on cooking it in the microwave but I wanted to experiment with the batter and it tasted just like I wanted, so why preheat the oven for 20 minutes and cook the cake for 10 when 2 minutes in the microwave does just fine?” 
  I often feel the same way when I bake one loaf or pan of cake at home. It takes 10-15 minutes to heat up the oven and another 30-40 minutes to bake just one cake. I don’t use the microwave oven very often, but a recipe like this, which takes only a few minutes, justifies using it. 

Quick Chocolate Cake -- a treat for yourself
Recipe inspired by Chocolate Birthday Cake by Ms. Adventures in Italy

Makes one mini cake in an 8-ounce ramekin/casserole**
(Make two for a dinner date, or save one for the next day!)

4 ounces plain Greek Yogurt (2 % fat), or ricotta cheese, about 1/2 cup
2 tablespoons unsweetened cacao/cocoa powder, Dutch process
1 tablespoon almond milk, unflavored
2 tablespoons honey (or other sweetener)
1/2 egg, lightly beaten first (so you can divide it)
1 tablespoon almond flour (or grind  a handful of almonds in food processor)
1 teaspoon corn or potato flour
¼ teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Optional toppings:
Fresh, seasonal berries
whipped cream
1-2 tablespoons melted semi-sweet chocolate, or chocolate ganache (bittersweet chocolate melted with a little cream)

Mix the cacao and almond milk in a small-medium bowl, then add the honey and egg and whisk. Add the yogurt, vanilla, almond flour and corn or potato flour and mix well. Pour batter into the ramekin. Place the ramekin in microwave oven and cook on high for about 2 minutes. Cook on high heat about 3 minutes if you use fresh ricotta cheese.

Serve with toppings (optional) and/or a port wine or muscat.

Nutrition (assuming using yogurt rather than ricotta; toppings not included):   320 calories, 10 g fat (3 g saturated), 111 mg cholesterol, 110 mg sodium, 51 g carbohydrate, 4 g fiber, 41 g sugars, 18 g protein. Good source of iron (18% DV); excellent source of calcium (25% DV). Using ricotta (from part-skim milk) instead of Greek yogurt will increase the calories to 415 and fat to 17 (sodium, saturated fat, etc. will also go up)... and even higher if you use whole milk ricotta, so you might want to reduce the ricotta to 1/3 cup (calories will go to 360, fat to 14 g and saturated fat to 6 g for part-skim; using whole milk ricotta it will be 390 calories and 18 g fat, with saturated fat at 9 g).
Nutrition calculated by Palate Works.

** Using LE CREUSET Mini Cocotte (8 oz Petite Round Casserole).

Monday, May 7, 2012

Cannelloni -- Provençale Style

   Here in California, we have a large Mexican community. May 5 is well known as “Cinco de Mayo,” a big celebration commemorating the Mexican army’s defeat of Napoleon’s French forces over a century ago. I don't know much about the history, but I do know that everyone here, including myself, takes the opportunity to partake in a big “FIESTA,” toasting and feasting fresh and tasty Mexican food and drink. Every year since I came to California I have been invited to a Cinco de Mayo party or dinner by Mexican friends and their families. It is always mucho fun, and I have learned many different regional Mexican delicacies from these families over the years.

  Enchiladas are one of the most popular Mexican dishes here in California, not only among Gringos, but Asian people as well. Of course, there are dishes similar to the enchilada in other countries. One that comes to mind is the Italian “Cannelloni,” also very popular in America. What’s great about enchiladas and cannelloni is that you can make them with all kinds of fillings – poultry, meat, seafood, just vegetables or only cheeses. I learned this Provencal-style cannelloni from my friend from southern France. It’s not too heavy, and perfect for spring.

Wine suggestions: Dry wine from Provence (white, red and rose) such as Côtes du Rhône, Bandol and Côtes de Provence.



Cannelloni (chicken breast with spinach)
Makes 8 Cannelloni, 4 servings

For Chicken Cannelloni:
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut in half crosswise then finely sliced (or ground chicken breast if available)
1 bunch spinach, cooked, squeezed dry and chopped (yield about 2/3 cup)
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 cup chopped parsley
2 tablespoons bread crumbs (e.g., Japanese Panko style)
1 egg, lightly beaten
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan, Asiago, Pecorino Romano or Gruyère cheese

8 small pasta sheets, about 6”x6” (2 sheets per person)
1 cup peeled and seeded  tomatoes, diced, or grated Roma tomatoes or Marinara sauce
Salt and freshly ground white pepper

To Make Cannelloni:
Heat the oil in a large skillet over moderately high heat, and sauté the onion and garlic, stirring occasionally until soft, about 2 minutes. Add the chicken. Stir well and season with salt and pepper. Continue cooking a few more minutes. Transfer to a large bowl and cool completely. Add the spinach, parsley, bread crumbs, 2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese and eggs to the bowl and mix all ingredients.

Preheat oven to 425° F
Grease a baking dish with butter or olive oil. Divide the filling into eight. Place each portion of filling onto a pasta sheet, then roll up to enclose filling. Transfer, seam side down, to the baking dish, arranging snugly in one layer. Spread tomato sauce on top of the cannelloni and sprinkle with remaining cheese. Cover with foil and bake in middle of oven until sauce is bubbling, about 20–25 minutes.

For Vegetarian Cannelloni (spinach and cheese):
1 bunch spinach, cooked, squeezed dry and chopped (yield about 2/3 cup)
4 ounces mushrooms or zucchini, sliced
1 small onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 cup chopped parsley
2 tablespoons bread crumbs (e.g., Japanese Panko stylel)
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 cup shredded mozzarella
1/2 cup fresh ricotta cheese
½ cup grated Parmesan, Asiago, Pecorino Romano or Gruyère cheese

8 small pasta sheets, about 6”x6” (2 sheets per person)
1 cup peeled and seeded  tomatoes, or grated Roma tomatoes or Marinara sauce
Salt and freshly ground white pepper

Prepare the same, more or less, as above for chicken cannelloni.

Note: In my friend's original recipe, she uses blettes (Swiss chard) instead of spinach. Swiss chard is a member of the beet family. Using Swiss chard in the cannelloni gives more flavor and texture.You may also use both Swiss chard and spinach.

The olives in the picture are from the south of France. These small black olives, Nicoise (from Nice) olives, are my favorite... mild and not too salty. You can purchase them at Whole Foods Market. Also, Trader Joe's sells good green olives (in a small jar labeled Lucques Olives) from the south of France.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Salad of Red and Golden Beets

    When I first tasted beets (at a college cafeteria), I thought they were terrible. I didn't taste anything but a strange sweetness and texture.  A few years later, I became a prep cook at a now-famous French-California cuisine restaurant in Berkeley where the menu changed daily. One spring day I had to bake and clean a couple cases of red and golden beets for a composed salad. I still remember my hands being completely stained red when it was done. However, the chef prepared them seasoned with red wine vinegar, salt, pepper and extra-virgin olive oil, then garnished with orange slices and zest. It was very simple, but attractive and delicious... and I re-discovered beets. It was such a different taste and texture from the beets at the college cafeteria, which typically served vegetables from a can.

Every so often I still see those canned beets at salad bars at corporate or college cafeterias. Some things never change. I don't make beet salad so often at home, but when I saw these beautiful beets at the farmers market last weekend, I wanted to make it at home.

Red and Golden Beet Salad
Recipe is adopted from Alice Waters' Chez Panisse Vegetables book

about 1 bunch (one pound) each red and golden beets
2 tablespoons red wine, or sherry or balsamic vinegar of your choice
1 shallot clove, skinned and chopped or finely sliced
3 tablespoons chopped chives
  salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

If you want to make it the Chez Panisse way (optional):
1/2 cup shelled walnuts, roasted a few minutes in the oven
2 blood oranges: With a sharp knife, trim off the top and bottom of each orange and pare off the the rest of the peel, making sure to remove all of the pith. Slice the oranges into 1/4 inch rounds.
2 tablespoons orange juice
zest of 1/2 orange
serve with garden lettuce or Belgian endive

Preheat the oven  to 400 F. Trim and wash the beets, place them in a baking pan with a splash of water, cover tightly with foil and roast about 40-45 minutes until they can be easily pieced through with a sharp knife. When beets are cool enough to handle, peel them and slice or cut into wedges. Place them in separate bowls (the red beet will color the other beets otherwise). Season both bowls of beets with the vinegar, salt, pepper and the olive oil, and the orange juice and zest if you are using. Arrange the beets on plates and garnish with the shallots and chives, like I did in the photo, or serve on a bed of garden lettuce or Belgian endive. Garnish with the roasted walnuts.


Tip: It is best to toss the beets with vinegar first and marinate for 5 minutes before adding the olive oil.

You may also serve this beet salad with some fresh goat cheese or feta cheese.