Monday, April 11, 2011

Seafood stew deconstructed

In coastal areas around the world, the traditional seafood stews are based on the same flavor-building technique: the flavor base is prepared with aromatic vegetables, herbs, spices, small fish, fish and shellfish trimmings; then the "nice" fish and shellfish are dropped into the base and simmered just long enough to cook through. They become the stars of the show, while the flavor base provides the ambiance, often with rice, noodles, or bread as a background. Bouillabaisse of Marselles, San Francisco chioppino, paella, jambalaya, Russian ookha, seafood chowders of the US East Coast, Thai seafood curries are all based on this winning principle.

This stew is my take on Brazilian mariscada, with a lot of adjustments to my own taste and ingredients at hand, and it's based on the same universal idea.
Lemon and white wine are seafood's natural partners, and I love the tropical islands reference added by coconut milk. It would be better to make seafood stock with shrimp shells and heads, but this time I only had shells - they had to do. Serves 4.

Flavor base:
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, minced
3 large cloves garlic, minced
1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced
1 small can diced tomatoes, with juice
Stock made with shrimp shells, 1 cup white wine, plus water to cover, strained
Pinch saffron
Pinch cayenne
1 tsp smoked paprika
Sea salt, fresh ground white pepper

Heat oil in a large deep pan. Add onion and garlic, cook over medium-low heat until onions are transparent but not browning. Add pepper and tomatoes with their juice, simmer over low heat until vegetables are very soft and the liquid starts to reduce. Add seafood stock, cook another 10 minutes. Season with saffron, cayenne, paprika, salt and pepper.

4 large sea scallops
12 large shrimps, peeled, tails on (use shells for the stock)
1 pound white fish (I had cod and barramundi), cut into bite-size pieces
12 langoustine tails

Increase heat to medium. Add scallops. Cook 2 minutes. Add fish and shrimps. Cook until opaque and the shrimps turn red. Add langoustine tails.

To finish:
1/2 cup unsweetened coconut milk
Juice of 1/2 lemon

Add coconut milk and lemon juice. Heat through. Adjust seasoning. Remove from heat.

To serve:
Small bunch cilantro, minced
Lemon slices
Cooked white rice

Serve over white rice, garnish with cilantro and lemon.
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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Smoked trout in a bag

Last week I have discovered an easy way to add smoked flavor to baked or grilled fish - smoker bags for oven or grill - and I used it to "smoke" whole trout several times, with great success.

The bag is made of several layers of aluminum foil, there are alder wood chips between the layers, and tiny holes in the inside layer. You rub the fish with olive oil, salt and pepper inside and out, place a few lemon slices and/or herb sprigs inside each fish, put the fish in the bag and close it. Then you can place the whole thing on a pre-heated gas grill, or in a hot oven. The chips release the smoke inside the bag, and it imparts it's flavor on the fish while it cooks.

Because the fish is enclosed, it doesn't lose any moisture, the way it does in real hot-smoking. The result is a moist, tender, steamed-fish texture, with a smoky flavor.

I found that one bag can accommodate 2-3 large trouts, up to four pounds total weight. Baking in the oven at 400 degrees for about 40-45 minutes works very well. The best results, however, I got when I grilled the fish package over very hot grill for about 30 minutes. The fish got a little charred on the edges while the centers stayed moist.

Update 4/7/2011:
Today I smoked a 2.5 pound slab of pork ribs in a bag. I used a pre-made dry rub on the ribs (Jake's Righteous Rub: paprika, brown sugar, garlic, parsley, tarragon, oregano, salt - thank you, Jake! I've added fresh ground black pepper, and more paprika for color). My gas grill goes from zero to 600 in about 15 minutes. I kept the bag at 550 degrees until the chips started smoking, 15 minutes or so, then reduced the heat to 325, and cooked the bag for a little over an hour.

Although the meat came out very tasty and falling off the bone tender, there is a lot of room for improvement:
- alder wood smoke is not as dramatic on pork as it is on fish; the bags are also available with hickory chips - I'll try this next
- the surface of the meat is somewhat dry; reduce the time at high temperature, and reduce the slow-cooking temperature too. It may be a good idea to marinate the meat instead of using a dry rub
- the bag had room for much more than just one slab of ribs; I'll toss in some onions and garlic, and may be even small potatoes next time.

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