Monday, April 21, 2014

Mixed Plate: Getting In the Season of Ingredients With a New Cookbook

Blame it on the Spring, but the excitement of seasonal cooking is most definitely in the air. Social media feeds are being filled with blooming tulips and gardening photos of early herbs and awakening greens. It was fitting that I received a copy of acclaimed Seattle chef Greg Atkinson's new book, In Season (Sasquatch Books), right as our own garden started to come back to life.

Sous vide Halibut with Rhubarb Ginger Butter Sauce, from Greg Atkinson's In Season - Photo by Wasabi Prime

Chef Atkinson's name should sound familiar -- he's freshened up the stunning menu at Canlis and is the chef/owner of the beloved and award-winning Restaurant Marche on Bainbridge Island. His adherence to fresh, seasonal cooking isn't just imbued upon any Pacific Northwest chef, he honed his craft on San Juan Island, launching the the dining program at Friday Harbor House. If you've visited the San Juans, it's an idyllic setting to appreciate and learn the skill of preparing food seasonally. There's an abundance of produce and seafood available right outside one's doorstep, and you become acutely aware of what's coming and going as the months pass. His cookbook isn't just recipes, it's a love letter to all the seasons and the delicious gifts they bring. The dishes and essays encourage you to be more aware of your surroundings, appreciate the things that thrive in our charming region. And the recipes are simple -- you're not going to be spending days of prep on everything; the food is meant to showcase the ingredients as simply as possible, highlighting the freshness of each item.

Our Lush (not lush) Harvest of Rhubarb! - Photo by Wasabi Prime
Which leads me to our own garden: meet our lone rhubarb plant. Hey, there, Rhubarb. What's a-happening? Rhubarb: silence. Why silence? Because I just cut all its spindly stalks down in a single, savage swoop!! I bought this plant a few years ago, and planted it in a large pot so that it kept its distance from the dastardly slugs/snails that seem to eat anything and everything in our garden. I promise to plant him in a more grown-up spot, his roots are probably overcrowded, but for this season, I managed to get a nice handful of thin, but pretty rhubarb stalks.

Rhubarb Should Be Called the Christmas Plant! Or the Italian/Mexican Flag Plant - Photos by Wasabi Prime
But what to do with the rhubarb? Not enough for a pie. Once you remove the leaves (don't eat those, they're toxic), you're left with a few handfuls of chopped up red/green stalks. I was flipping through Atkinson's book and came across a savory recipe that caught my eye -- it was the baked halibut with rhubarb butter sauce. The Mister always complains how I rarely cook fish (sorry, I don't like the smell when it's cooking), but now that we have the ginormous sous vide machine, it's made fish prep much more pleasant, with an even more pleasing result, since it pretty much guarantees you won't overcook the fish and you get this silky, tender filet. The recipe of course called for baking the halibut filets, which is dandy -- Brock loves any excuse to use the sous vide, so if you happen to have one of these gadgets, this recipe is lovely with that cooking method.

The Way God Intended All Foods to Be Enjoyed - Lots of Butter and Wine - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Halibut is a mild fish, so the star of the recipe is of course the rhubarb butter sauce. It's got ginger and a dry white wine reduction, along with the tartness of the rhubarb. What makes it extra-extra-good is a ton of butter. OK, maybe not a "ton" but it sounds like a lot when you first read it -- conquer your Butter Fear, it's worth it. It's essentially a rhubarb beurre blanc, the classic French method of an emulsified butter sauce that's made by whisking cold pieces of butter with other flavor ingredients on low heat. The constant whisking is what makes the smooth blending/emulsification happen, otherwise the sauce would "break" and the fat would separate from the other components, which are typically wine and aromatics. I especially liked that the recipe had notes for making the sauce partially ahead -- cook just the rhubarb, wine and other seasonings, saving the butter for last, finishing the sauce over the stove right before serving. I did this, and it worked perfectly. Having a book written by a chef has the added benefit of make-ahead tips and the ability to stop the clock on a recipe part of the way through.

The resulting dish was truly Spring on a Plate. Tender halibut, sitting on a bed of wilted greens (I just cooked down some Swiss chard, but spinach, rice, or lightly seasoned potatoes would work), and the zesty rhubarb sauce. The rhubarb will definitely give the sauce a Hello Kitty hue, but I think it helps telling people from the get-go that it's a savory rhubarb sauce. It won't taste sweet, but there's a definite fresh sweetness, mostly from the ginger, and the tartness of the rhubarb acts almost like citrus. You're asking: so what's the recipe? As always, I don't like to copy/paste recipes from books, unless a recipe has already been released with permission; it always feels like stealing. I'd rather encourage people to experience In Season for themselves, I think this is a book worth reading, not just for this recipe, but ones you'll be able to use year-round, as you cook with the seasons.

Keeping it Fresh and Somewhat Healthy for a Weekend With Family - Photos by Wasabi Prime
We had seasonal eating on the brain when we made this dish because we were hosting family for the weekend -- who enjoyed the dish greatly, I must say. While it wasn't specifically spring-seasonal foods, we did find ways to keep the meals as colorful as possible because, you know, company's here, so make it pretty. I was still on a romesco sauce kick, since I made so much of it for all the asparagus I was eating the week before -- romesco sauce recipe here, if you're interested in joining my obsession. I made meatballs with romesco, and that was served with quinoa for a quick dinner. I had a bunch of fresh oranges and apples from our CSA, which was made into a spiced apple compote, to top Greek yogurt for breakfast. We needed to be a little more mindful about food sugars, just for health reasons, so even more of a reason the halibut and rhubarb dish was perfect -- very minimal added sugar in the sauce, and easy to pair fish with wilted greens, versus something starchy.

A Treat from Last Summer - Ice Cream Made With Last Summer's Blackberry Jam - Photo by Wasabi Prime

But I did make one sugar-naughty thing: blackberry ice cream. I reduced the amount of sugar in the ice cream base (and there was plenty in the fruit, so this dessert was no angel), but I felt like even if I kept with my original recipe, homemade ice cream still has less sugar than the store-bought stuff. So there. As for the blackberries... hey, that's not a springtime fruit! True, but we were being resourceful, using homemade blackberry jam, given to us by friends from last summer. This is one way to enjoy berries out of season - use jams or preserves to flavor ice cream! A note about trying to cut sugar when making ice cream: I wish I could cut the sugar completely from making an ice cream base, but I've tried that and the ice cream comes out hard as a rock -- even with a fuller-fat base using cream and extra eggs, the sugar must almost be like an antifreeze element, keeping the mixture from totally freezing solid. I need to experiment more, but I may try no/low-sugar frozen yogurt to see if that sets up without turning into concrete.

Having family visiting was a great occasion to try out Greg Atkinson's book, as well as celebrate fresh, simple foods. The meals were colorful, which is a sign of season's change and healthy ingredients at work.

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