Breakaway Cook

KTLA Appearance with Michaela Pereira


Here’s a clip from my appearance on KTLA in Los Angeles — Michaela is such a great host!


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Pickled Jicama


I often see fine-looking jicama in my local Mexican grocer, and I just as often buy it. It’s one of the best $1.50 investments I can imagine making. It’s really all about the texture: when it’s good, it has the crunch of a honeycrisp apple, making it perfect for salads and, when finely minced, as a crunchy snappy little topping for fish and tofu. You can make killer salsa out of it, too.

I think the trick is to slice it very thinly; thicker slices have a texture, color, and shape too similar to a raw potato. The Benriner remains the essential tool for getting really thin slices (talk about great investments; I use mine almost daily).

I was slicing away at a jicama today, not really knowing what I would do with it, when I thought: hey, how about some quick pickles? I had just purchased a large bottle of good rice vinegar and a new global flavor blast I’ve been playing with — much more on this later — bottled passionfruit syrup, from Taiwan. So there it was: my sour, my sweet, and my ingredient to be pickled.

Jicama, like tofu, is pretty much a blank canvas, so we can impart any flavor we like into it. I must say: these pickles are great! The passionfruit has some major passion to it, and the crispy slice of pickled jicama is the perfect delivery vehicle for it. Just a little mound beside my snapper fillet tonight ought to fill the bill nicely.

And, a final bonus:the liquid will make superb salad dressing. Take it out of the fridge, drizzle some in a cup, pour in some olive oil, swirl it around, and voila, instant, delightlful salad dressing!

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Halibut Carpaccio, Breakaway Style

Summer seemed to fly by this year, and I didn’t even get around to making any carpaccio, one of my favorite summer dishes. I was thinking of just that when cruising around Monterey Fish, where the local (well, Oregon) halibut were looking mighty fine. The deal was struck.

One tricky part of carpaccio is slicing. How in the world do those restaurants get those thinner-than-paper translucent slices? Someone once told me: with a meat slicer, after lightly freezing the fish! I wasn’t about to go that route (though I am secretly jonesing for a small meat slicer). I’m actually not crazy about that uniform look, in which each slice is laid partly on the previous one, forming a circle — there something kinda fussified about it; it’s just way too much trouble, for very little payback, at least in my book. So I relied on the good old meat mallet to do its brutal magic. A couple of gentle pounds, with the fish in between pieces of Saran wrap, worked perfectly. Each piece comes out very differently, so I enjoyed the mosaic that eventually wound up on the plate, in the photo above.

Dressing: infused pickled ginger vinegar, fruity olive oil, and piece of very ripe plum smashed in for good measure. That got poured, gently, on each piece, followed by a few flecks of julienned pickled ginger. My shiso in a pot is cranking on the deck, so some of that got sliced up and tossed on as well. Finally, I sliced up a few skinny strands of dried persimmon, just for fun, and tossed those on, though I might have done that AFTER I snapped the picture! And a pinch of persimmon salt (made the usual way, with a piece of dried persimmon, whirred in the coffee grinder with some sel gris).

This is a really great first course, as part of a special meal. You could do something similar with other fish, especially tai (snapper), fluke, albacore, even conger eel.

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Spiced Polenta-Fried Tofu in Ginger Broth

I’ve been feeling — quelle horrors! — in a bit of a cooking rut lately.  And whenever I feel that way, I know there is an easy fix nearby: I just pick up Gray Kunz’s masterpiece, The Elements of Taste, and start flipping through it. I always find something that catches my attention. This time it was a new idea for a crust: polenta, star anise, and cloves. Gray doesn’t (to my knowledge) cook with a lot of tofu, but I do, so I figured the crust might be a winner on a nice block of soft tofu, especially if I place it, crispy side up, in a shallow bowl of aromatic gingery chicken broth.

The preparation might look labor-intensive, but it’s actually a snap. Just heat up some butter and olive oil in a small saucepan, and saute red onion and plenty of ginger (both roughly chopped) until they soften a bit, about five minutes. Add a few cups of chicken stock (homemade is of course best, but the boxed organic stock is fine) and a tablespoon or so of apricot jam for some subtle fruity sweetness, and reduce. While it reduces, toss in a handful of green beans (or asparagus, or carrots — almost any vegetable will work) to cook in the broth.

While that simmers, toast a few star anise and cloves over low heat in a cast-iron pan, until fragrant (about three or four minutes), and whir in the spice grinder. Add a quarter-cup or so of polenta, and whir some more.  Set aside.

Slice a block of soft tofu in half along its equator and pat the two halves dry with a clean kitchen towel (or paper towels, provided I can use them without Delia noticing!). Slice each half twice diagonally, to form a big X, giving four triangles per half, or eight total. Spoon or spray on some olive oil, and liberally dust on the spiced polenta, pressing it in a bit with your fingers to make sure it sticks. Heat up butter and olive oil in a nonstick pan, and gently fry the tofu triangles, crust-side down, until golden brown. Flip and turn off the heat.

Pour the broth through a sieve for a more refined presentation, or just use as is for a more rustic one. Ladle a small quantity in a shallow bowl and place the tofu in it, crispy-side up (we want to keep the crispy part out of the liquid, so it stays crispy). Top with the cooked veggies and any fresh herbs you like. I used radicchio in the photo above.

The clove/star anise/polenta mixture is a heady one, and sets the stage for the deeply savory, clean broth. This one’s a winner — thank you again Chef Kunz!

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Sierra Mackerel with Japanese Citrus

I’ve long been a fan of mackerel,  both cooked and the vinegared saba of sushi restaurants.  Its oils have a rather strong presence, and I’ve found that most people either really like it, or really dislike it.  I still clearly remember the first time I had it; I felt like I could have eaten a dozen! To me the oil is a feature, not a bug; it just needs to be tempered with a little acid, either in the form of citrus or vinegar.

Lots of places around me sell frozen mackerel from Norway, and it tastes great prepared simply, typically just by heating up some olive oil and butter, seasoning the fish with salt and pepper, and pan frying until done, followed by a healthy squeeze of lemon. It’s also a meaty fish — one mackerel is usually enough for two people, if served with salad and some good bread.  A variation on that simple treatment would be to omit the salt, and add a little soy sauce and lemon to the pan toward the end of cooking (soy sauce and lemon like one another very much).

Lately I’ve been eating a new (to me) kind of mackerel called Sierra mackerel. Its oils aren’t quite as strong as the regular mackerel;  it’s a beautifully light fish, chock full of omega 6s. It just tastes like it’s really good for you, and it turns out that it is. My favorite prep for it so far: the simple pan fry described above, but instead of lemon, a small drizzle of Japanese citrus: either yuzu, sudachi, or kabosu. All three are available in bottled form at Nijiya, or any Japanese market. Top with tangerine salt, or whatever your salt of choice is.

I’m working on scoring actual trees of yuzu, sudachi, and kabosu. It’s not easy. But I think I’ve got the right climate for them; now it’s just a matter of convincing the Northern California Rare Fruit Growers to actually come up with some! Has anyone reading this ever seen any of these citrus trees in California? I know a guy in Oakland with a GORGEOUS yuzu tree, packed with hundreds of individual yuzu. I’m not a person who easily gets envious or jealous, but I would KILL to have such a happy yuzu tree!

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