Fennel & Fish

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I love fennel with its unique, aromatic taste. Its subtle hints of anise. But I’ve found there’s a whole lot more to it than that — depending on how you prepare it. Last night, I just shaved and tossed it with arugula, lemon juice, red pepper flakes, and olive oil to go with some exquisite, sushi-grade tuna that I quickly grilled.

Like the ideal Italian salad, it was bright, clean and delicious.

You can bring out more flavor by grilling. My very first experience with fennel was just that. Grilled. It was served with some tasty rockfish that came off the same wood-fired grill. And the slightly crunchy slices of this ancient Mediterranean vegetable, kissed by the fire, added a wonderful and tantalizing herbal spin to the dish.

Braising is another option. It’s more time consuming, of course. But delivers even more fennel flavor. That’s what chef Mario Batali does at his noted restaurant, Babbo in NYC. He then serves his braised fennel with whole roasted Branzino. To me, its also great with grilled or pan roasted swordfish. Or almost any kind of fish, for that matter.

Braised Fennel. A recipe with a nod to the Babbo kitchen.

Here’s what you’ll need:

2 Fennel bulbs, cut into 1/4″ slices
Chopped fennel fronds
Dry white wine
Olive oil
White Sugar
Salt and pepper

The preparation:

Preheat the oven to 450. Then arrange the fennel slices in a single layer in a large oven proof pan. Pour in enough white wine to cover, season with salt and pepper and bring to a boil over high heat. Transfer to the oven to braise uncovered until tender. About 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool.

Next, in a 14-inch saute pan, heat 3 TBS olive oil until smoking. Add the fennel slices, sprinkle with 1 TBS sugar, turning often, until light golden brown. About 8 to 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and that’s it. You’ve got wonderfully aromatic braised fennel to accompany some fish. Use the chopped fronds to dress the plate.

And to spice up dinner conversation when you serve it, here are some curious and fun facts about fennel. For openers, it was used back in ancient Greece. Not only that, it was closely associated with Dionysus. You know, the infamous god of food, wine and frolic. The ancients called fennel “marathon.” Because it filled the fields where that iconic battle was fought. In fact, Greeks still call it “marathon” today.

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Grilling with Grape Leaves

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Last night I wanted some barbounia! Those highly-prized, small fish so popular throughout most of Greece, especially on the islands. In France they’re known as rouget. And to some they’re red mullet.

Not an easy fish to find in this country, barbounia are usually dusted with flour and pan-fried in a touch of olive oil. Then, you just give them a serious squeeze of lemon and dig in. Wow! Incredible!

Of course, I knew no market here would have them, so I settled on some beautiful, “just-caught” yellow tail snapper. They’re much bigger than red mullet (which is only about half the size of a small trout) but they would work just as well for what I had in mind.

My plan was to wrap the fish in grape leaves. And grill them.

That’s how they cook barbounia on many of the Greek islands. Flavored with charred grape leaves, the little grilled fish are irresistible. A caper-lemon sauce with fennel takes them over the top.

Grilled fish in grape leaves. Why don’t you give them try.

Here’s what you’ll need to make the dish:

Whole small snapper or trout
Grape leaves packed in brine
Extra virgin Greek olive oil
Lemons
Kosher salt
Fennel fronds
Red pepper flakes
Capers
Cooking twine

The preparation:

Make the sauce first. It’s simple. Just whisk together ½ cup olive oil, 1 TBS lemon juice, 2 tsp chopped fennel fronds, 2 tsp chopped capers. Give it a hit of salt & pepper. And add a pinch of red pepper flakes. If you’d like to taste more lemon juice, add it. I usually do.

Now, the fish. Rinse and dry a bunch of grape leaves – two to four per fish depending on their size. And rinse and dry the fish. Then salt and pepper aggressively. Both inside and out. Next, put a few fennel fronds into each cavity, along with a good pinch of lemon zest.

Before you wrap the fish, brush them lightly with olive oil.

OK, now lay out the grape leaves. Dark side down. Overlapping two leaves for each fish. Then place the fish on top and wrap them up, leaving head and tail exposed. Use more leaves to cover the fish, if needed. I like to secure the leaves with twine. But you don’t have to.

Now you’re ready. Make sure the grill is hot. And oiled. Get out your tongs and put the fish on the grill. You want the leaves slightly charred and the fish cooked through. That should take about 4 to 8 minutes per side. Depending on the size of the fish. Maybe 10 minutes. To check, insert a metal skewer into the thickest part of the fish. If it comes out hot to the touch after 20 seconds, the fish is cooked.

The smell of grilled grape leaves gets me every time. But — the taste of the fish, fresh off the fire, bathed in the “latholemono” sauce with its mellow astringency and its hits of caper and fennel is something that always summons up vivid memories of remote Greek island tavernas and long, late night dinners with loved ones near the sea.

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Restaurant Rant: Marcello’s Ristorante

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Is it that they just don’t know what they’re talking about? Or that they have questionable taste? How can most of the restaurant reviews in Sarasota, Florida where I live be so far from the truth?

Do you feel that way? Or is it just me?

I recently read a review of an Italian restaurant in Edible Magazine, a publication I had up until now the utmost respect for, that actually — made me mad. Ticked me off. Got under my skin. So much so I wanted to call the publisher. Maybe I still will.

Here’s what did it. These words. They hit me like a bad press release. “Some people are just born with talent. Whitney was born to sing. Ernest was born to write. Marcello was born to cook. Period.“

Not only was it weird to see “Whitney” and “Ernest” in the same paragraph, it was even stranger to see Marcello given this kind of overblown praise. Especially since I had dined at the chef’s namesake restaurant three times prior to reading that glossy, misleading review. On each occasion, I had a mediocre meal. My thoughts and those of my food savvy tablemates were basically the same. Heavy handed. Over sauced. Nothing special. Bayonne, New Jersey.

Our fearless reviewer had this to say: “ If you’ve already eaten at Marcello’s … you don’t need one single word of this article to convince you how special this nine-table Italian eatery is. “ And she went on to comment “ The servers are also spectacular.”

Was this the same place? On each of my visits, our server (we, unfortunately, had the same sorry fellow every time) was not only inept and overly gratuitous, he became flustered, irritated, belligerent and difficult to deal with when asked questions he couldn’t answer or when we offered suggestions about how to improve the meal.

I don’t want to be too mean spirited here. My point is — unless restaurants are given honest reviews by thoughtful, knowledgeable individuals, we have no hope of improving the quality of the dining experience here in Sarasota. We deserve better. Don’t you agree?

When someone asks “how did you like the meal?” Let them know.

Hopefully, they’ll listen.

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Crispy Snapper with Mango Sauce

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Like mangoes? If you do, here’s a light summer dish you should try. Especially, if you can find the mango variety called Valencia Pride.

While most mangoes are sweet and tasty, the Valencia Pride is so much more — with its surprising spicy notes and hints of coconut and vanilla. It’s seductive. Addictive. Truly exceptional.

But don’t stress if you can’t find any. Most mangoes will deliver the sweet, unique flavor needed. And when you pair the fruit with a little heat and white wine you can elevate even the simplest of dishes.

If you’d rather have meat instead of fish, try this recipe with pork tenderloin. Maybe dusted with smoked paprika and cumin. Grilled or seared to get a nice smoky char and cut crosswise into medallions.

Crispy Snapper with Spicy Mango Sauce. That’s what ended up on our plates last night. I pan seared the fish and used Valencia Pride mangos. Did I forget to mention that we have tree on the property?

Well, as luck would have it, I happened to have a “less-than-ripe” mango, as well as a few lusciously soft, ripe ones, just begging to be eaten. The tart one, I diced up to add bursts of contrasting flavor to the sauce I made from the sweeter, golden-fleshed, ripe mangoes.

Here’s what you’ll need to make the dish:

Red snapper fillets
Two ripe mangoes
One tart mango
Sauvignon Blanc
Orange juice
Sriracha sauce
Fresh cilantro
Red bell pepper
Smoked salt
Fresh ground pepper

The preparation:

First to the sauce. Peel and pit the mangoes. Then roughly chop the ripe ones and cut the tart one into ½” dice. And you might as well cut the red bell pepper now too. Into dice about same size. (Save the mango and pepper dice in separate bowls for later, to plate the dish.)

Next, in a blender, puree the two chopped mangoes with ½ cup wine, 2 TBS orange juice and ¼ tsp siracha. Taste to see if you’d like more heat and add additional siracha accordingly. Then strain through a medium-fine-mesh strainer and gently warm before serving.

Now it’s time to sear the fish. It has to be room temp. and very dry to get the crispy skin you want. And you need to have a very hot, oven-safe, non-stick skillet. Filmed with olive oil. When the oil is smoking, add the fillets skin side down. Pressing continually with a fish spatula to keep the skin in contact with the pan. When the skin is crisped and a bit charred, flip the fillets to finish for a few minutes.

To plate the dish, spoon the mango sauce on each plate. Add a sprinkle of red pepper and tart mango. Along with a few sprigs of cilantro to satisfy your artistic sensibilities. Top with the fish, skin side up. Give it a pinch of smoked salt and a twist of fresh black pepper, along with a touch of the best olive oil you’ve got. That should do it.

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Simply Grilled Swordfish

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To me the tastes of summer have to include some sort of grilled fish and a handful or two of just-picked basil from that prolific pot out on our patio. And, as with most of what I cook during the warmest months of the year, the preparation has to be fast and simple.

So in that spirit, this is not actually a recipe; it’s more like an idea — grilled swordfish with yellow tomatoes and fresh basil sauce. I love the way it tastes. And I love the way it looks.

Do you remember the first time you tasted grilled swordfish? I certainly do. It was at a small restaurant on the California coast near Los Angeles that specialized in grilling fish over fire, long before Chez Panisse changed the way we thought about California Cuisine. Well, that experience made me think about fish in a new way.

Here was a flavorful fish that could stand up to the fire like a fat marbled steak or, if you were cooking out with my Greek dad, a thick lamb chop. Seasoned with just olive oil, salt and pepper, maybe some fresh herbs, a thick swordfish steak became my idea of the ideal summer dinner. Having my first taste while looking out over the Pacific Ocean as the sun was setting might have added just a bit to the mystique.

Here’s what you’ll need to make this non-recipe:

Swordfish steaks, one inch thick, enough to yield 6oz per person
A bunch of small yellow tomatoes
A few handfuls of fresh cut basil
A lemon
Red wine vinegar
Very good extra virgin olive oil, preferably Greek
Kosher salt
Fresh ground pepper

The preparation:

To start, take the fish out of the fridge so it comes up to room temperature by the time you take it to the grill. I like to cut the skin off the swordfish steaks at this point. But you could leave it on.

Next, cut the tomatoes in half and toss into a bowl. Splash with vinegar, a little olive oil and sprinkle on some salt. Let them soak it all up while you have a glass of wine, make the basil sauce and grill the fish.

For the basil sauce, blanch about a cup of basil leaves in a pan of boiling water for 15 seconds then transfer with a slotted spoon to a bowl of ice cubes and cold water to stop the cooking. Drain the leaves, squeeze out the excess liquid and puree in a blender with 3 TBS Olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste. And a bit more olive oil if you like.

At this point, you want to have ready a hot, oiled grill and a pre-heated 400 degree oven. So depending on how long it takes to make that happen, you might want to have them both heating up while you work on the tomatoes, make the basil sauce, maybe set the table.

Then just before you put the swordfish on the grill, lightly rub it with olive oil and generously season with salt and fresh black pepper. Once it’s on the grill, the trick is to let the fish cook with out moving it for about two minutes. Then, if you can’t easily lift a piece with tongs, leave it on the grill a bit longer. When the fish releases easily, turn it over and grill for about two minutes on the second side.

If you were wondering about the oven, this is when you’ll use it. Take the fish from the grill directly to the oven. Put it on a foil-lined sheet pan. After 5 minutes at 400 degrees, check to see if it’s done. Just push a toothpick down through the fish. If it offers no resistance, it’s ready.

Time to eat! Out by the pool, if you have one. Or at least, outside.

To bring it to the table, arrange some tomatoes on your plates, add a piece of grilled fish and drizzle on the basil sauce. A good squeeze of lemon on the fish, with a touch of olive oil at the last minute is always a good thing. Also, I’ve been using a sprinkling of smoked salt.

You can make this summer treat with smaller pieces of fish as a starter, as I did in the photo above. Or with 6 oz portions as a entree.

Grilled olive bread would be good with it. So would some Greek potato salad. You know the kind, made not with mayo, but with vinegar.

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Finding Blu Kouzina

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It’s not easy finding a good Greek restaurant. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been disappointed by what’s been served to me in the name of “authentic Greek Cuisine.“ Seems like nobody in charge of the kitchens at these all too plentiful, mediocre-at-best restaurants seems to care. Especially, here where I live in Sarasota.

There’s a simplicity about Greek food. So, it demands care in the kitchen. To me, the standard was set a while back by pioneering restaurateurs in New York City — Steve Tsolis at Peryali and Costa Spiliadis at Milos. They not only brought a new respect to what they were doing, they also elevated Greek Cuisine in this country to a new level. They sourced the very best ingredients. They prepared them with the utmost care. Now others are following their lead.

Just like all successful chefs and restaurateurs, Effie and Dennis Tsakiris really care about food. They’re the inspired owners of Blu Kouzina, a very special Greek restaurant that arrived in Sarasota not too long ago like a bold breeze off the Aegean Sea.

And after talking with the couple for only a few minutes I knew Blu Kuzina was going to be one of my regular dining destinations. Or, at least, I hoped it would be. In the end, it was the authentic food from their open kitchen that actually did it for me. Yes, I’d be back.

On that first night, my wife, Trulee, and I felt like we should order just the way we do whenever we’re in Athens or in the Greek Islands, sharing bites of everything. And just like there, we were glad we did.

Smoky eggplant spread (melitzanosalata), bright with herbs and flavored by fire. One of the best we’ve had. Classic cured cod spread (taramosalata) with its distinctive taste of the sea. Also first rate. Greek village salad (horiatiki salata) topped with seriously good feta. Better than most. A perfectly grilled whole branzino. Delicious. The fish, featuring just enough char to make things interesting, was served with a tangy olive oil-lemon sauce to drizzle as needed.

Bringing all of this together was a crisp, white wine, an Assyrtiko, from one of Santorini’s most famous vineyards, Segalas. One of our favorites. Coincidentally, this morning I was reading the NY Times Food section and noticed an article by Eric Asimov about Santorini Assyrtico. You might want to take a look. NYT, D4, July 8, 2015.

And here’s a bit more about Blu Kouzina. After subsequent visits, my wife and I have added langostino and grilled octopus to our list of favorite dishes there. Yes, they had langostino. Real langostino.

My kind of restaurant.

Blu Kuzina / 225 N Blvd of Presidents, St Armand’s, Sarasota,FL
941-388-2619 / www.blukuzina.com

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Seared Salmon for Summer

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This is one of my favorite summertime recipes. Seared salmon with avocado and endive bathed in tangerine vinaigrette. It’s a fast dish to prepare, which is always good when the weather’s breaking records. I heard it’s going to reach 100 degrees in Paris next week. Amazing. Anyway, in addition to being quick, this dish brings together an incredible blend of satisfying flavors that play off the richness of the salmon. You have to try it.

Here’s what you’ll need to serve four:

Salmon fillet, skin off, big enough to yield four 6oz pieces
Three Haas avocados
Three Belgium endives
Dijon mustard
Lemon juice
Very good extra virgin olive oil
Champagne vinegar
Tangerine juice
Red pepper flakes
Kosher salt
Fresh ground pepper
Finely ground white pepper

The preparation:

First make the tangerine vinaigrette. In a small pan bring 1 Cup tangerine juice and 1 tsp red pepper flakes to a boil, reduce by 1/2, cool, then place in a small bowl with 2 TBS Champagne vinegar. Whisk in 1/2 cup olive oil and season with salt and black pepper.

Next the avocado and endive. In a medium bowl, whisk together 1 1/2 TBS Dijon, 1/4 Cup lemon juice, 1/4 Cup olive oil, 3/4 tsp salt, and 1/2 tsp black pepper. Add the avocado, cut into 1-inch chunks and the endive, cut into one inch rounds, separated. Toss well.

Now, lightly rub olive oil on the salmon filets, generously season with kosher salt and white pepper and place on a very hot pan or grill to cook for five minutes or so on each side depending on thickness.

To finish the dish, place a mound of avocado and endive on each plate, add the grilled salmon and drizzle with tangerine vinaigrette.

My thanks to the marvelous Mario Batali for the ideas behind the tangerine vinaigrette. And to the talented and prolific Ina Garten for the original avocado with endive recipe.

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An Evening at Esca

I once tried to dine in as many of the most outstanding Italian restaurants in New York City as possible, back when I was lucky enough to end up in The City for a few days on business each and every month for a period of about five years. What an experience.

Now that I’m not getting into Manhattan as often as I used to, I tend to visit old favorites over and over. And at the top of my list, at least for now, is Chef David Pasternack’s Italian seafood restaurant, Esca. My wife and I adore this comfortably sparse, ochre colored trattoria that could easily be tucked away on a fashionable street in Rome. Attention is paid to every detail. Especially in the kitchen.

The menu starts with small plates of impeccably pristine, raw seafood the chef calls Crudo. Things like red snapper with meyer lemon and olive oil, black sea bass with toasted pine nuts, razor clams with chilis, scallions and mint. Simple, satisfying and delicious. A must to start a meal here. There are also other starters that shouldn’t be missed. Like grilled octopus. Last time I was there it was served with corona beans and preserved sorrento lemon. It was one of the best octopus dishes I’ve had. Then, as a Primi I shared an order of perfectly cooked linguine with bottarga, tart and tasting of the sea as only dried mullet roe can. That was followed by a Secondi of slightly smokey, grilled soft shell crabs. Another, satisfying, straight forward dish, that echoed the intense Italian sensibility that characterizes all of Pasternack’s offerings. Lovely wines too.

Can’t wait to get back.

Esca / 402 West 43 ST New York City
212-564-7272 / www.esca-nyc.com

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A Real Taste of Greece

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I have to admit that on every trip to Greece, and there have been many, I managed to eat grilled octopus at least once a day for the entire time I was there.  It was that good. The satisfying taste of smoke and sea was addictive. For me it was a dish that had to be on the table, along with a classic horiatiki salad, marides, those fried little white bait, and a whole grilled fish, or, maybe, pan seared red mullet, a fish known and prized since ancient times. 
 But it was the taste of octopus that always haunted me.  Sadly, back in the states, I could never find the object of my desire.  Not in markets.  Not in restaurants.   So, for many years, I resolved myself to a life without those addictive, tasty grilled tentacles on my table.

That all changed, however, when some adventurous grocery stores and markets began carrying what I’d been craving.  To this deprived Greek-American food guy, that was seriously exciting.  The only thing left for me to do was learn to cook the creature.  Like a real Greek.  Which I finally did.  It’s not as difficult as you might think. In fact, it’s easy. I’ll tell you how in another post.

Right now, what’s crazy for me is that octopus seems to be everywhere. It’s become truly ubiquitous. From top New American restaurants in major markets to scores of modest Italian and Greek places across the country. On my last trip to New York, it was on the menu of every restaurant I visited, Esca, Babbo, Gato, Perry Street, and Milos. Of course, I had to try it in each of them. The only disappointment was at Babbo. Too tough. You can even find more than a few decent octopus dishes where I live here in Sarasota, Florida.

May be what some people are saying is true — octopus is the new calamari! Even so, when ever it comes off of my grill at home, it always reminds me of Greek island evenings and Athenian tavernas.

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My Latest Book

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It all started at the beach when I read a translation of the Greek wedding service to my sister and my soon-to-be-wife on the timeless Cycladic island of Sifnos, the day before my marriage in a tiny, icon-filled, 16th Century chapel there. That’s when I first became aware of the exceptional beauty of what is thought to be the most ancient of all Christian wedding ceremonies.

Since then, those Greek island memories have become ever more present in my life. So much so that not long ago I decided to write and publish a book about the Orthodox wedding ceremony. I wanted it to be a very special “gift book” explaining the ceremony and its symbolism based on conversations with the clergy, filled with original art illustrating an easy-to-understand text. And that’s just what it turned out to be.  The talented Evangelia Philipidis created the captivating art to go with my text.  I know it’s hard to believe, but up until now a book like this didn’t exist.  

Know anyone getting married in the Greek Church?  If you do, you might want to think about the book as an engagement or wedding gift.  The Greek Orthodox Wedding Book is available in many Greek church bookstores around the country and on Amazon.

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“Long before there was a Greek Orthodox Church, back in pagan, ancient Greece there was a certain time of year when most couples married. Classical scholars say it was in winter.”

“Various superstitions compelled the ancient Greeks to be married at night, during a full moon. The most common month for couples to marry was called Gamelion, which means “wedding month” in ancient Greek. We call that month January.”

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“The Greek Orthodox wedding ceremony is unique among Christian marriage ceremonies in that this ancient Orthodox rite has remained primarily unchanged for centuries.”

“Another aspect that sets the ceremony apart from other wedding rituals is that the bride and groom do not exchange vows. Instead, it is their presence before Christ, the priest and the congregation that signifies their wish to be joined in holy matrimony.”

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“The role of a koubaros is similar to that of a best man, but he plays a much more active part in the Greek Orthodox wedding ceremony, both spiritual and financial.”

“Custom dictates that he is responsible for tipping the priest, as well as buying the koufeta favors, alter candles and even the couple’s stephana or crowns.”

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The Greek Orthodox Wedding Book contains twenty nine original illustrations; all are available through ArtSource as fine art prints.

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