This past Sunday, Annie, Heather and I headed over to Westwood to attend the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Last year Annie and I went to see Tyler Florence promote his new (at the time) cookbook Eat This Book. We sat on uncomfortable folding chairs in the hot sun munching on kettle corn and watched him make panzenella and linguine putenesca with fresh home-made pasta and then we spent an hour in a long, coiling line waiting for him to sign our copies of his book. Then she and I headed back down to her place in Culver City and proceeded to make the exact same meal for our respective loved ones. The pasta had a really great, rustic texture but was a bit too thick and the putenesca was too salty, but the whole day was charged with excitement and fearless culinary possibility.
So when I found out that this year famed, local chef Suzanne Goin was set to do a little presentation to promote her new seasonally themed cookbook Sunday Suppers at Lucques at the festival's culinary stage there was no question about whether I would be there. Again sitting in the sun, my fingertips salty from kettle corn (it's now a tradition), the three of us watched as Suzanne prepared a pretty little salad of arugula, blood oranges and large slices or parmesean cheese. To go with this, she whipped up a decadent pot of orecchiette carbonara that she springified with fresh peas and pea shoots. During the demonstration I asked a few questions and later when she signed my book she remarked that my questions were, to use her word "good." Then I floated home on the validation of the creator of Lucques.
A couple days later, after leafing through the section of the book with menus for spring, I had processed all my options and decided on the first recipe I wanted to tackle - wild striped bass with farro, black rice, green garlic, and tangerine. However, there have been too many times when I've gone to the supermarket with a recipe in my head only to be met with disappointment when a key ingredient is unavailable, so as a saftey precaution, I had a backup recipe. Well upon my arrival at Whole Foods my enthusiasm was deflated slightly when I realized that they didn't have striped bass, they didn't have black rice, they didn't have green garlic and to cap it off, I couldn't remember if farro was the same thing as spelt, which they did have, but alot of good it would have done me.
So I had to switch gears and move on to plan B - Hawaiian snapper with green rice & cucumbers in creme fraiche. Whole Foods did not have Hawaiian snapper either, but they DID have Pacific Snapper. Hawaii is in the Pacific so I figured it was close enough. Whole Foods did not have preserved lemons either, so I headed over to the Farmer's Market at the Grove to Monsieur Marcell, a fantastic little gourmet market that I knew would have them (I had called first, just to make sure). And while I was there I picked up a little container of the olives Lucques is named after.
(for the fish)
6 Hawaiian snapper fillets - 5 to 6 ounces each (The recipe calls for the fish the have the skin, however the ones I purchased had already been skinned)
1 lemon, zested
1 tablespoon thyme leaves
2 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley, minced
A small handful of watercress, cleaned tough stems removed
(for the cucumbers in creme fraiche)
3 or 4 Persian cucumbers, just under 1 pound total
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
3/4 cup creme fraiche
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 shallot (about 2 tablespoons) shallot, minced
3 tablespoons preserved lemon, finely diced
1/2 teaspoon preserved lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons fresh mint leaves, minced
(for the green rice)
1 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup packed flat-leaf parsley
1/4 cup packed mint leaves
1/4 cup packed cilantro leaves
2 tablespoons minced chives
2 teaspoons fennel seeds
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3/4 cup finely diced fennel
3/4 cup finely diced red onion
1 chile de arbol
1 1/2 cups white basmati rice
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
First season the fish with the lemon zest, thyme, and parsley. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours. Be sure to take the fish out of the refrigerator 15 minutes before cooking to bring it to room temperature.
Next make the cucmbers and creme fraiche mixture. In a small pan over medium heat, toast the cumin seeds until they release their aroma and darken slightly. Using a mortar and pestle, crush the toasted seeds coarsley.
In a small bowl, combine the creme fraiche with the garlic, shallot, preserved lemon and juice, cumin, cayenne, and a pinch of pepper. Taste and adjust for ballance and seasoning. The book says that the sauce should be assertive and have a nice kick to it. If not, add more cayenne. Gently stir in the mint.
Slice off a small piece of the cucumber and taste it to see if the cucumbers need to be peeled. Cut the cucmbers into thin slices on the diagonal. Toss the cucumbers with 1 teaspoon of salt and let sit for 10 minutes. Drian off any liquid the cucumbers have given off and then pat dry with a paper towel. Toss the cucumbers with the creme fraiche mixture. (The creme fraiche can be mixed with all the seasonings except the mint ahead of time. Just before serving, salt the cucumbers and toss them with the creme fraiche and mint.)
Next make the green rice. Bring the chicken stock and 1 1/4 cups of water to a boil in a medium pot, and then turn off the heat.
Place the parsley, mint, cilantro and chives into a blender.
Add 1 cup of the hot liquid and puree the herbs on medium. Pour in the rest of the liquid and puree on high for about 2 minutes, until you have a very smooth, green broth.
Toast the fennel seeds in a small pan over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes, until they release their aroma and turn light golden brown. Pound them with a mortar and pestle.
Rinse out the chicken stock pot and heat it over high heat for 2 minutes. Add the olive oil, diced fennel, onion, toasted fennel seeds, chile and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Cook over medium-high for 5 minutes, stirring often until the onion and fennel are translucent.
Add the rice, 1 teaspoon of salt, and a pinch of pepper. Stir well to coat the rice with the oil and vegetables. Add the herb broth and 1/2 teaspoon of salt.
Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat to a low simmer. Add the butter, cover, and cook the rice for 15 to 20 minutes, unitl tender. Turn off the heat and leave the rice covered for 5 minutes. Fluff the rice with a fork and taste for seasoning.
And finally the fish. Heat a large saute pan over high heat for 2 minutes. (Depending on the size of the pan and the fish, the fish may have to be cooked in batches.) Season the fish with salt and pepper on both sides. Swirl in the olive oil and wait 1 minute. Carefully lay the fish in the pan, and cook 3 to 4 minutes. Turn the fish over, lower the heat to medium-low and cook for 1 or 2 more minutes, until the snapper is just cooked through. Be careful not to overcook the fish. When it's done, the fish will begin to flake and separate a little and the center will still be slightly translucent. Remember the fish will continue to cook a little more when you take it out of the pan.
To serve, spoon down a base of the rice. Place some of the cucumbers over the rice and scatter some of the watercress over the cucumbers. Lay the fish on top and season with fresh lemon juice and a drizzle of olive oil. Spoon over a few more cucumbers and a little more watercress.
Suzanne describes this dish as "part Indian, somewhat Moroccan, a little bit French, and vaugely Slavic." Now I love Indian, Moroccan, and French, but as for the Slavic component...I admit that I was initially slightly skeptical as to whether I would be moved by cucumbers in a cream sauce. To be honest, just the thought of it was almost unappealing, but I decided to go ahead and give it a try. And am I ever pleased that I did.
As good as each individual component of this meal is, what really makes it outstanding is the way it all works together - the crunch of the Persian cucumber, the tender, flakey fish, the creamy sauce and the verdantly hued rice. It just all perfectly compliments one another. The heat from the fish and the rice melts the creme fraiche a little which then soaks into the fish and the rice. The creme fraiche tastes light, thanks to the preserved lemon and the mint, it has a spicy kick from the cayenne, and a very sublte smokiness from the cumin. The fresh herbs on the fish and the mint in the creme fraiche ties back in with the green rice. This is the kind of meal where you really want to make sure that you get a little bit of everything in each bite.
One thing I especially like about the recipe are the specifics regarding technique, such at the whole "preheat the skillet for two minutes over high." Her suggestion of turning the saute pan to low once you flip the fish seems to be a great way of making sure that the fish doesn't wind up over cooked.
I only cooked two fish fillets, but the rest of the recipe is meant to serve 6.