Wild Turbot, shellfish, water chestnuts, hyacinth vapor
Scott Weinstein, my fishmonger and my friend, is leaving Blacksalt, so I wanted to get one more seafood dish in before his last day (October 31, for anyone in the DC area who wants to stop in before he leaves).
Every single bit of food in this recipe made me drool. I had very high expectations for this dish, because turbot and shellfish and sunchoke puree? Music to my ears. I'm still having a hard time accepting the fact that summer is over, and this dish was the transition that is helping me love autumn once again: fish and shellfish from an ocean I miss so much, and a warm, earthy puree that makes this colder, windy weather a little more palatable.
I've made mussels and littlenecks here at home so many times I've lost count, but I'd never worked with razor clams before. I see their shells on the beach every summer and I've eaten them quite a bit, but I've never cooked them. They were kinda slurpy... meaning, after I rinsed them, they were moving in and out of their shells quite a bit and making a kind of slurping, slithery sound against the glass bowl as they did so. A little creepy, but nothing at all like the Great Softshell Crab Trauma of 2007. Not even close.
In a large stockpot, I brought to a simmer some wine, vermouth, shallots, peppercorns (the book calls for 27 of them; I put in 28 just to be a dick), fennel, tarragon, thyme, and garlic:
Then, one batch of shellfish at a time, I steamed the mussels, littlenecks and razors -- about 3-4 minutes for each, pulling each batch out with wok strainer thingie, and letting the shellfish sit in a colander over a bowl to catch all the liquid that might be hiding in the shells.
After removing the shellfish from their shells and putting them in separate containers prior to the further cleaning of them, I strained the cooking liquid through a double-cheesecloth-lined strainer. I wanted to make sure I caught all the sand and other gunk that might have ended up in the cooking liquid. It looks murky in the photo below, but it was clean as a whistle. No grit, no sand.
It was at this point that I checked the book again to see how much of this liquid I needed for the custard, for sous vide-ing the turbot, and for storing the shellfish. I'm glad I did, because had I not rechecked it, I would have been screwed.
After cooking the shellfish and straining out the solids, I ended up with 490g of liquid (started out with 500g -- 250g white wine + 250g vermouth+whatever small amount the shellfish release when steaming open). The books calls for setting aside 250g of the liquid to store the shellfish in, then to reduce the rest by half, which would be used for the custard and the turbot. But, the custard required 350g of stock and the turbot needed 240g of stock, so I was perplexed as to how 240g of stock (since I had just 490g and already set aside 250g for the shellfish) could be reduced to equal 590g.
So, I made the executive decision to not reduce the stock, and instead, set aside just 200g (instead of 250) for storing the shellfish in the fridge, which left me with 290g -- so I split it in half: 145 each for the shellfish custard and the turbot, then adjusted the corresponding ingredients in those dishes accordingly.
I love math.
Where were we? Ah yes, cleaning the shellfish. I removed the bellies from the razor clams (the belly is outside the clam and pulls off much like an outer filmy layer of a scallion or green onion), then sliced the razor clams on the bias:
Next, I trimmed the littlenecks, removing the stomach and rinsing them to make sure all the sand was removed.
I don't have an individual photo of the mussels being cleaned, but I just pinched then pulled off that outer blackish band from around the edge of each mussel. Then, they all went into the now-strained cooking liquid and into the fridge while I finished prepping the rest of the dish.
Onto the shellfish stock! My kitchen, at this point, smelled amazing.... and got even more amazing as the afternoon went on. I love the smell of cooking shellfish. It's so fresh and fragrant and salty. Bliss.
For the shellfish stock, I mixed the shellfish stock and some heavy cream and brought it to a simmer, then added some iota carrageenan (that's with a hard "g" sound, not "jeenan") and mixed it with my immersion blender.
Poured that mixture through a fine mesh strainer into another saucepan, covered it, then stored it in the fridge until it was time to plate.
Sadly, neither the farmers market nor three local grocery stores had sunchokes when I was shopping for this dish (which is odd), so I subbed in some Yukon Gold potatoes, because I knew they'd work, flavor-wise with this dish. Sunchokes would have been better (I love love love them), but I had to roll with the punches and make do with what I had.
So, I peeled and cut the potatoes into small chunks, put them in a saucepan with heavy cream and salt, and brought them to a simmer. I cooked them over low heat, covered, for 25 minutes -- at which point the potatoes were so, so tender.
I put the potatoes and 2T of the cooking cream into the blender and pureed them until they were silky and creamy, and oh my....
I put the potato puree into a small saucepan (over no heat) and got to work on the fish.
Gulp. Yes, Turbot is expensive.
I suppose I could have substituted halibut or sole or cod, but it's so rare that I eat Turbot, that I wanted to splurge and do it right.
I also bought a little more than I needed, because I knew I wanted this dish to be more entree-sized in its final presentation.
So, yeah... Turbot. But look at it:
I put each turbot fillet into a ziploc bag along with 10g butter and approximately 15g of shellfish stock. Rolling them to remove as much air as I could before sealing them, I put them in a 138F/59C water bath for 20 minutes.
With 5-10 minutes left to go on the fish's cooking time, I slowly and gently reheated the potato puree and the shellfish custard. I also put the bowl of shellfish atop a large pot of simmering water (improvised double-boiler) to warm them.
To plate: turbot in the center, flanked by potato puree and a little fortress of diced water chestnuts
I gently poured the custard in so that it surrounded the fish, but didn't cover it. Then, I topped the fish with a generous serving of shellfish, as well as a fresh fennel frond.
So, how'd it taste?
Check out the reaction below from one of the neighbor kids (who, by the way, SPIT OUT the last two Alinea @Home dishes he tasted):
Need further proof that this was a winner?
You guys, this is one of the best things I've ever made. It's certainly our favorite dish, so far, from the Alinea cookbook.
Clean plates all around. The turbot is rich, but not chest-clutchingly so. The shellfish custard was creamy and fragrant, but not heavy. The shellfish was perfectly, perfectly cooked (yay, me!). Not a bit of grit or mealiness in any of mussels or clams (yay, Scott!). The water chestnuts added a needed texture to it, and the potato puree was just lovely. All the flavors worked so well together, and everything just tasted so gooooooooood. It was one of those dishes that made me wish I had a fireplace, because I wanted nothing more than to curl up on the sofa under a blanket with a glass of Macallan 18 afterward.
Now, those of you who have the book, or who remembered every word in the title of this post might be wondering: Carol, what about the hyacinth vapor? Good question. A few weeks ago, Grant posted an essay on his blog on The Atlantic's Food Section called "Fish, Flowers, and the Taste of Youth." In it, he writes about the creation of this dish -- all the different variations, tests, and how it just wasn't coming together the way he wanted it to until he added the scent of flowers. Smelling hyacinths as he cooked and ate this dish reminded him of fishing with his dad for walleye, and how they'd sit on the banks amid the spring wildflowers eating lunch.
And it struck me: fish and flowers is Grant's food memory. Not mine.
And yes, I could have found hyacinth or some other really, really fragrant flower to put in a charger-type bowl, and create vapor for this dish, but it didn't feel right. It felt forced. And, it's not like by not including it I was ignoring a specific technique or ingredient integral to the execution of this dish or its enjoyment by others. Instead, the shellfish and turbot smell were more than enough to make us giddy and hungry and happy bite after bite. Because when I think of shellfish, I think of the beach, I think of Quahog's, and I think of my friends and how much we all love a good meal together. And, when my neighbor's kids think of shellfish, they always always always think about two things: the mussels at Central, and their favorite French Laundry at Home dish: "Linguine" with White Clam Sauce... and that makes me grin, because I wonder if -- when they're all grown up, out on dates or having dinner with friends or their own families -- when they see and eat mussels or clams they'll think about how much fun we've all had over the years eating at the same table, cracking jokes, trying new foods, and revisiting old favorites.
The next day, I worked all morning and treated myself to an Alinea-leftovers lunch -- DeBoles gluten-free/corn spaghetti with some leftover shellfish tossed in some leftover shellfish custard.
And, just as I finished eating it (and it was divine), I heard the mailman's truck pull up outside, and I was hoping he had something I'd been waiting for:
YES! A brown, cardboard box from Amazon can only mean one thing:
I love my life....
Up Next: Crab Apple, white cheddar, eucalyptus, onion
Resources: Shellfish and turbot from Blacksalt; Martini and Rossi vermouth; Oyster Bay sauvignon blanc; peppercorns, garlic, and fennel from the TPSS Co-op; thyme and tarragon from my garden; iota carrageenan from Terra Spice; Organic Valley heavy cream; Dynasty water chestnuts.
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