One of the great pleasures of teaching at Newark Academy is that one gets to meet not only wonderful students, but wonderful families. While I am not entirely certain the would appreciate being named in a public blog, one family (M.E. & P), in particular (and their children, G, J & M) has always been a delight, and has consistently been willing to bid on a “faculty find” meal that I offer at the yearly NAPA gala (perhaps I will have more to say about my offering this meal later). They are wonderful to cook for, because they are always willing to venture into something unusual with me. In a world where we have become more and more particular about what we will allow to pass our lips, it is wonderful to cook for people who are largely willing to take a risk. I had the pleasure of dining with them this Thursday, June 22, 2017, and I spent the day prepping for the event.
One of my great vices is that I always over-cook. I am paranoid about failing to provide for people, and when the food is good, sometimes it goes quite quickly. Although we were really only seven people all together. I cooked to feed 10. At least I was able to leave my hosts with leftovers.
Summer is upon us, and for reasons that elude me, my summer cooking is most frequently Italian, or Asian inflected. Perhaps there are sound reasons for my choices; I just know that I am drawn in that direction.
Of late, I have been drawn back to a text that I fell in love with over seventeen years ago–Ming Tsai’s Blue Ginger: East Meets West Cooking with Ming Tsai. Perhaps this return was influenced, in part, because I recently grew misty-eyed upon learning that Ming Tsai recently closed his famous Blue Ginger restaurant. Or perhaps it was simply time to return to an old friend. Regardless, it was the Blue Ginger that drew my attention as I got ready to cook for my hosts.
When I first started cooking out of Ming Tsai, I was tremendously impressed by the subtle hand that Tsai brought to handling fish. In particular, I have long loved his Corn Lemongrass Soup with Lobster Salad (pp. 28-29) as it is unusual, relatively simple to produce, and is visually stunning. Unfortunately, I did not take photographs of the finished product (I had not thought of this blog when I prepared it), but I think the concept is pretty straightforward.
The base of the whole event is the corn soup. Unlike some other corn soups, Tsai has designed a corn base that is thickened exclusively by the cellulose and starch released by corn cobs. This soup can be prepared vegan (as I did), but it is arguably even better designed around a chicken-stock base.
To prepare the soup, roughly chop about three large onions (I used Vidalia sweet onions, as they were on sale, but any onion would do), and toss into a stockpot along with a light, generally flavorless oil (canola is recommended) sufficient to generously cover the onions. In addition, Tsai recommends that you sprinkle in about two cups of finely chopped lemongrass stalks (the tender, white parts of the stalk). This, however, is where I strayed from Tsai’s advice.
I live in suburban New Jersey in a town called Chatham. While Chatham has a good deal to recommend it, it is rather short of people who might routinely consume lemongrass. I therefore have a good deal of difficulty getting lemongrass in sufficient quantities to meet Tsai’s recommendations. Yesterday, as in the past, I simply responded by grubbing as many lemongrass stalks as I could get from Whole Foods, and making due with what I could find (approximately half-a-cup). I have to say, I like the end product, and I suspect I like it more than I would like the soup with a stronger lemongrass flavor. Lastly, I added two tablespoons of prepared ginger puree (I used the Ginger People’s puree, but any competitor would do). I then popped the onion mixture on the stove, set it to medium-low, and let the mixture gently sweat while I turned my attention to the corn.
Now that it is summer, wonderful, sweet, fresh summer corn is just starting to come in. I picked up 12 ears of corn at Whole Foods, and brought it home. According to this recipe, one husks the ears of sweet corn (which makes a mess) and then uses a chef’s knife (larger is better) to slice the kernels of corn from the cobs (which makes an even bigger mess). Corn kernels will go everywhere. Collect all the kernels in a bowl, and set aside. It is now time to move the cobs into the stockpot.
At this point one is almost at the point of adding the stock of your choosing to to the cobs, and allowing the cobs to cook and to release their wonderful colloids to thicken the entire broth. A few things need to be said, however, before we proceed. First, one will be cooking the cobs, and then removing them, after about 45 minutes worth of cooking. Accordingly, you want the cobs to be large and intact for easy removal later. Secondly, you will need to reserve about two cups of the largest corn kernels for adding to your crab salad, and for decorating the soup bowls. The trick is therefore to add only the small, chopped up pieces of corn, while reserving the largest kernels. How do you do this?
My answer is gravity sorting. Take your own of corn kernels, and begin to gently shake the bowl back and forth–perhaps even tapping it on the counter. Over time (2-3 minutes) the largest kernel clusters are likely to shake to the top. You can then skim them off the top, and reserve them for later usage.
So, at this point, you have a stockpot that contains (a) onion, (b) lemongrass, (c) ginger, (d) large corn cobs, and (e) a substantial quantity of corn kernels–all of which are cooking on very low heat. You can now add stock (chicken, vegetable) sufficient to cover all of the ingredients. Tsai estimates that you will need about 8 cups. I tend to estimate more. This should be raised to a gentle simmer, and left alone for around 45 minutes to an hour; stirring is probably a very good idea.
At the hour mark, I now take an additional step. I have a wonderful blender, a Vitamix, and it is amazing at reducing even challenging substances into a perfect puree. Working in stages, I take the corn soup (now cooked) and puree the soup until it is velvety smooth. I return the soup to the stockpot, and keep it just barely simmering.
It is now time to turn one’s attention to making the “lobster” salad.
Now, I have to admit that I am a heretic. I am simply not in love with lobster. Surely, young lobsters (1-1.5 lbs) are not bad, but I am not at all convinced that they are worth their time, Certainly, they are a pain to obtain, and they are annoying to cook and shell. If I was passionate about their flavor, I would exert myself. I am not, and so I look for alternatives.
One of the great dirty secrets that most Americans do not know is that canned crab meat is often really quite delicious, and is almost always the foundation for whatever crab products they are consuming (crab cakes, etc.). While I have tended to be Phillips Loyalist, I was unable to find Phillips at my local Whole Foods, and accordingly I substituted with J.M. Clayton Jumbo (the largest size) lump crab meat. Not only was it delicious, but I was happy to discover that it was processed in the United States (which, I acknowledge, is imperfect, but it is certainly less imperfect than some recent reports of working conditions of crab pickers in China and the Philippines). I used one full tin of their crab meat (which I placed in a pyrex mixing bowl).
The backbone of this crab salad is fennel root. Many home chefs have little experience with fennel, but it is a delightful, sweet pairing that classically pairs with lobster or crab. Negatively, fennel, when eaten raw in large chunks, has a distinct aroma which is evocative of anise or licorice. While this is a classic flavor pairing in Chinese cuisine (say, 5-spice powder) it can be challenging if it gets to be too intense. The goal, to my mind, is to reduce the risks of exposing your guests to too large a single bite of fennel (releasing too many of the aromatics all at once). My solution is to achieve a very fine dice (brunoise) on the fennel. While I was unable to find a model of how to do this that was prefect, the following Vimeo does offer a crude model of what I am after. The end dice should be an eighth to a sixteenth of an inch in size; the key is to simply begin the cutting process with a very sharp knife, and approach the dice as if one is shaving slices, rather than chopping the root apart. I ended up dicing one and a half fennel bulbs (well, I diced two, and used 1.5 bulb). I do save as many of the fennel fronds as I can, as I like their look and I garnish with them as well as fold them into the final salad product.
A third important element of this salad is found in the reserved corn kernels. You should have about two cups worth of mostly intact corn kernels, and those kernels will need to be briefly cooked in order to get them ready for the salad. To do this, bring about 4 cups of water to a brisk boil on your stove. Salt the water with about a tablespoon of salt (I am very imprecise here) in order to lock in the color of the corn. Before adding the corn, set aside another bowl in your sink, and add as much ice to the bowl as you can spare. Fill the iced bowl with cool tap water (we are making ice water to shock the corn) and have the bowl ready for your corn. Ready a colander in anticipation of draining the corn. Once that is set, add the two cups of reserved corn kernels to the pot, and cook them for no more than 3 minutes. At the three minute mark, drain the hot corn (be careful) and transfer the hot drained corn kernels into the ice bath to stop the cooking. When the kernels have become dead cold, drain the ice water, and set the corn kernels aside. Approximately one cup of the corn kernels will be used to add to the crab salad. The rest of the kernels will be scattered as garnish in the bowls of soup.
If crab and fennel are the two features of this salad, we do have a major problem–together the two ingredients are very, very sweet. I do think it is important that dishes strive to combine or balance flavor profiles. How does one achieve a balance in this dish?
The answer is that one needs to supply (a) sourness, (b) bitterness, and (c) spiciness to offset the sweet. Happily Ming Tsai has brilliantly designed this recipe to do just this. Chives (about a quarter cup) stand in to bring bitterness (a sulphuric undertone) to feature the crab’s sweetness. Secondly, the salad is dressed with the juice of one lemon. And lastly, the spice taste is added by dressing the salad with 8 teaspoons of hot chile oil.
The chile oil is the main ingredient that will cause home cooks to balk. While it is true that Ming Tsai provides a recipe for making chile oil at home, the quantities that result are so great that it is simply impracticable. I would head out to your local grocery, and pick up a bottle of chile oil from Ka-Me foods (carried by most grocery store chains).
These ingredients are then gently blended (do not break up the lump crab meat with vigorous mixing–you will make me cry). And reserved for plating. You should probably adjust the seasoning of the salad (salt and pepper) to your taste.
So! You are narrowing in on completing this dish! The last thing that you need to secure is a very good baguette from someone who knows what they are doing with bread. In general, I tend to lean towards three major bread bakeries as sources of a quality product: the Balthazar Bakery (widely available, especially in King’s and Whole Foods, but also available at Gary’s Wine and Liquor), the Sullivan Street Bakery, (less available, but excellent), and the Tom Cat Bakery (widely available, especially in King’s and Whole Foods). Some Whole Foods markets produce excellent store-based breads (say, the Sperlonga at Springfield-Union, which can now be delivered); others produce mediocre to poor versions of their own breads. I would get the best loaf you can find, and slice the loaf into 1.5 inch rounds. Coat both sides of the slice in a high-quality olive oil, and grill them until just golden.
In a wide, flat soup bowl, place the grilled bread in the center. Using your hands, carefully mound the crab salad up on the toast (1/4th to 1/2 cup). Surround the toasts with the shocked corn, and then using a ladle, pour in the piping hot corn soup until it rises within a few millimeters of the top of the bread. Serve immediately.
Pfew! This was more writing than I intended! But what fun it is to write it all down! I shall return and talk about lemongrass ice cream with pineapple salsa (also Ming Tsai inspired) and poached chicken (MT as well), as well as pistachio-pesto and peach salad (MT and Jody Adams).