Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Grilled trout in the park

This year, San Francisco Fleet Week falls on R. and my birthday weekend. The planned party on Angel Island  is out of the question. I had these parties a few times now, and every time we were lucky to catch the weekend before the Fleet Week. Friends had no trouble to get to the island, by boat, ferry, or even jet ski, and as an added bonus, we got to see the rehersal of the air show! This time, there will be crowds on land and on the water.

So the birthday party has to be elsewhere, but we decided to go to Angel Island anyway, and planned for this last Saturday. The morning of the trip, Y., who lives overlooking the Bay, called everyone and told us that the fog is entering, and Angel Island is covered already. Change of plans again.

One place that I know that the fog never reaches is China Camp park (in San Rafael, just across the highway from where I live), and I promptly suggested that we go there. By the time we were done calling back and forth trying to figure out where to go, most of San Francisco Bay, the Peninsula, and Southern Marin were covered with fog, so everyone was happy with my suggestion.
Supermarket farmed trout is a highly underappreciated fish. It's one of the few farmed fishes that actually taste good (farmed sturgeon is my second favorite), has few bones, looks great, and doesn't cost anything.
We paid $17 for this happy family of 6 fresh dressed trouts! Bright eyes, shiny skins, serves one each.

Season them inside and out with salt and fresh ground pepper, stick a rosemary branch, a sprig of thyme, and two-three slices of lemon inside, tie them with the kitchen twine to hold the herbs and lemon in, all the while keeping the bees out. Bees smell the fish from far away, and come to get a taste. Here, R. is fending the bees off with a paper towel, while I prepare the fish for the grill.

Brush the fish with olive oil. Grill over hot charcoals until the flesh flakes, about 6 minutes per side.

As an afterthought, we grilled a flat iron steak with cajun seasoning, and some corn on the cob.

Season the steak with Weber Cajun seasoning in both sides; grill, turning once, to internal temperature of 135 degrees for medium rare. Do not overcook: flat iron steak turns very tough if cooked beyond medium. Let rest 5-7 minutes, or as long as you can wait. Slice thinly against the grain. Serve with mustard.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Chicken paprikash

My friends in Beaver Creek biodynamic winery make a chicken paprikash to die for. I know their secret ingredient, and I am going to tell you in a moment. Beaver Creek guys say it’s OK to publish their secret. It’s not going to help most of us to imitate their paprikash. In fact, those of us who have access to this secret ingredient, already know the secret, and have their own recipes to die for.

The secret ingredient in the Beaver Creek winery paprikash is the chicken. A farm-raised chicken that had natural feed, a farmyard with plenty of sunshine and green grass and a comfortable barn for residence, rich social life among other free and brave chickens, and a lifelong relationship with the cook. The guy who makes the chicken paprikash is the one who bought a few days old chick from the breeder, gave it a name, fed it, protected it from the mountain lions, killed, plucked and cleaned it, and now cooks and serves it on the same day.

Other ingredients include the usual butter, onion, tomato, bell pepper, thyme, oregano, white wine, sour cream, and, of course, paprika.

I don’t have easy access to the secret ingredient. Some day, when I have a special occasion and plenty of time, I’ll drive 2 hours to the winery, buy one of their chickens, ask them to kill and clean it right away, rush it home, and make a paprikash almost as good as theirs. It will have the chicken’s name and the life story to go with it, and the wonderful old-world flavor. Some day…

For now, I don’t have the perfect chicken. But I have paprika. A Hungarian friend brought back a couple of kilos from a trip home a few days ago. I got two large bags – one sweet, one hot. Vibrant colors, sweet one pure crimson, hot – very bright brick-red; intoxicating smell; and as fresh as you get this side of the Atlantic. My own secret ingredient.

Our poor supermarket Rocky Jr. chicken is a cheap plastic imitation of what a chicken should be. Huge, super-fat, and almost tasteless. It’s a challenge to trim most fat from the thighs while still leaving the skin on, but it’s doable. On the bright side, each oversized thigh makes a perfect one serving.

I used fresh oregano instead of dried, out of sheer laziness: fresh grows right in front of the kitchen door, while dried is packed into my personal chef kit in the car; I would have to go get it. Oregano is one of the few herbs that have more intense scent when dried, so use more of the fresh when you have to substitute it for dried. Thyme is the other way: it loses scent with drying and storage, so a little fresh thyme goes a long way in recipes that call for dried thyme. I also used my homemade tomato sauce instead of tomato paste. There was only one cup left, and I didn’t want to freeze it.

Chicken paprikash
Serves 4

1 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp butter
4 chicken thighs, skin on, bone in, trimmed of most fat
Salt, pepper
1 large onion, thinly sliced
1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced
1 cup white wine
1 cup tomato paste
1 tsp sweet paprika
½ tsp hot paprika
2-3 sprigs fresh thyme
5-6 sprigs fresh oregano
½ cup crème fraiche
1 tsp finely chopped parsley, for serving

Heat oil and butter over medium-high heat in a Dutch oven. Season chicken with salt and pepper. Cook , turning, to brown on all sides. Remove to a plate.

Reduce heat to medium. Add onions and bell pepper. Cook until soft, about 10 minutes.

Add wine, tomato paste, paprika, thyme, oregano, and chicken. Bring to boil. Reduce heat to low. Simmer slowly until chicken is very tender, about 1 hour. Add crème fraiche, warm through without boiling. Serve over rice or noodles (or, in my case, with steamed cauliflower), sprinkle with parsley.