Saturday, June 5, 2010

A word on "healthy"

I tend to find these days that I use the term "healthy" somewhat differently from those around me. From what I can tell, they usually mean "low calorie" instead. When I say something is healthy, it means that you know every ingredient which goes into it, and most of it is good for you in terms of vitamin and mineral content, and generally isn't actively harmful. I am also of the opinion that if you cook for yourself, you'll generally produce food lower in salt and calories and fat than stuff you buy from the store. Even for things which don't have a whole lot of redeeming value beyond taste like alfredo sauce will be infinitely tastier and healthier if you make it yourself than if it comes from a jar. I dislike the taste of many preservatives, and don't need excess salt or vinegar used as preservatives either. One of the worst offenders of the preservatives genre to me is 99% of bottled iced teas. I cannot taste anything but preservatives and simple syrup. There's a question for you- does anyone but me notice that simple syrup tastes very different from actual sugar?

Bouillabaisse and rouille

My fiance's family were (supposed to) get together to "help" her choose a dress. I thought that it would be a nice gesture if I made a really tasty dinner for them all, something really nice and fresh. Scanning the pathmark weekly, I saw that several fish and littleneck clams were on sale. So I figured, why not a bouillabaisse? I had some ingredients at home, and I was tired of staring at all my plants and not doing anything with them. At the least, I could use some of the basil freshly picked.

So I got up early that chilly Saturday morning and went to the store. Hot damn, beef spareribs and pork back ribs were on sale. I don't normally like ribs, but I have developed a findness for beef spareribs. And my fiance adores them, so it should work out well. I went to the meat section but couldn't find either. I found one of the meat department guys and asked what happened, and was told that they were cutting them at the moment, to come back in ten minutes. Fair enough, think I, and I continues shopping. I come back and see the pork ribs are out. I found one that looks pretty meaty (the rest were way too fatty) but couldn't find the beef ribs. Annoyed, I found another of the butchers and asked what happened. The guy apologised and explained that one of the workers had just had a heart attack, and it would be a little while. Well. I felt like a bit of a dick. I went to the fishmonger and chatted with him a bit. I wanted to buy ~4-5 pounds of scraps to make the stock with, but apparently they don't sell those to you unless you at least call ahead of time. Instead I bought some cheap porgies and had them cut up and bit. Porgies have little meat on them, so I got a whole bunch of the smaller ones which were cheap enough and coudn't really be eaten anyway. The secret to bouillabaisse is that you really want a large variety of fish, but I didn't have THAT much money on me, so I bought three different kinds (I really don't remmeber what kind anymore, it is unimportant) and some of the clams. I joked with the fishmonger that at least the guy who had a heart attack wasn't on the meatcutter at the time. The fishmonger told me that actually, the guy had recently hurt himself on the cutting machine and had just that day returned from sick leave. "Man," I said "some people will do anything to get out of work."

I went looking for saffron. You don't need much, so I wasn't too worried about buying it. I check the spices aisle, and can't find it. I go to the information desk. The woman tells me to check the spanish aisle. I give her a blank look. "But...saffron is grown in India!" I exclaimed. And as a spice, wouldn't it be in the spices section? Nope, spanish food. So, okay, I go over. Nope, not there either. No fucking saffron out of an entire pathmark. I was flabbergasted. After wasting 20 minutes on this, I gave up and called my fiance and asked her to go to the local C-Town, which always sold the stuff in tiny containers right next to the cash register (you know, in case you unload your food and suddenly realize you're running low on saffron...). She called me later to tell me that after much argument with them, they grudgingly admitted to having been sold out. I finally gave up and made my recipe without it.

So, storytime over. Now to the recipe. I like leeks and onions so I added perhaps more than necessary. I chopped about a cup worth of onions and another 4 small leeks and added them with some olive oil to a large soup pot to simmer. Since they'll be going into the soup, if you undercook them a little it isn't so important. You want to sweat them but don't need to caramelize them. I took several cloves of garlic and had fun with my new stainless steel garlic press from Ikea. Yea, you can feel free to chop it really finely, whatever. I like the press, thank you. Keep in mind that the oil is now hot, and garlic cooks very quickly. And it will burn in the blink of an eye, so watch out. If you burn the garlic, you pretty much have to start all over again, because that taste WILL carry through. So only cook the garlic for a minute or two. Having done so, I added a couple of pounds of rough-chopped tomatoes. I always reccomend that you get nice tomatoes if you can. These were nice as they were perfectly red and still on the vine. And on sale. Anyway, they were really nice. So those got dumped into the pot. After cooking these over a medium heat for about five minutes, I added 5 cups of water, a bay leaf, several sprigs fresh parsely chopped up, zested a half an orange, a large pinch of fennel seeds, a bunch of freshly picked basil leaves chopped finely (a word of caution here. If you are using fresh basil, chop it up. Basil, on being cooked whole, will turn into a somewhat slimey weird and ugly mass that nobody wants in their bowl, believe me) a dash of salt and pepper. If you have saffron, this is also a good time to add it. Now is a good time to grab some cheesecloth and wrap your scraps/hacked up tiny fish and tie the ends in a bow to make a rough bag. You want the water to penetrate, and you don't want the fish too squashed, but you don't want it open so the heads can fall in the soup, or so that some of the solids from the soup can get into the bag if you can help it. Congrads, you have just made a raw-fish teabag. I like to lower it into the pot, then stick a wooden spoon through the "handle" of the cheesecloth so that I can occasionally move it a little. It also makes it much, much easier to remove, believe me. Have the handle hand from the middle of the spoon, then lay the spoon across the top of the pot and leave to boil uncovered for ~30-45 minutes. Before you walk away and leave it to boil, drop in one peeled potato, in halves. Make sure you know where it is- search for it later is a pain. Once done, pull out the scrap bag and place into a collender on inside another bowl- the bag will drip a large quantity of broth and juice and we don't want to waste any. At this point, you can cover with a lid and leave it alone until you are close to dinnertime. Have a taste- it should be delicious by now, so you don't need to mess with it later.

While you wait for dinnertime, make the rouille. I took a nice red bell pepper and chopped it into pieces about one inch by a half inch. In a small pot, bring water with a lot of salt to a boil. Pour the chopped pepper into the pot and let it simmer until the pepper is just slightly firm (not mushy- mushy means you've boiled all the flavor out). Taste the pepper- it shouldn't be terribly salty as it won't absorb much from the water. Drain the pepper. dump the pepper, the now cooked potato you fished from the soup, 4 cloves of garlic, and some more fresh basil, all into a food processor. If you want an exercise in masochism, you can use a mortar and pestle. For everyone else, the food processor. Process it in pulses until smooth. Add a small chilli pepper, or a few drops of Tabasco- you should just barely taste the tobasco, it's not supposed to be hot. Once that's done, blend in 4-6 tablespoons of some really nice first cold pressed extra virgin olive oil. As I said, taste it.

When dinnertime comes around, toss out the fish scraps and pour the juices from the bowl into the main stock. Bring the stock to a boil about 20 minutes before serving. Once boiling, add 6-8 pounds of cubed fish and shellfish to the pot. It only needs to boil about twenty minutes, and then it is ready to eat.

Take several tablespoons of the soup itself and add it to the rouille and again blend it until smooth. Serve the rouille in a small bowl with some crustily toasted french bread. The bread goes quickly, so have more on hand. Using a slotted spoon scoop up fish and shellfish from the pot and deposit them into the bowl, then using a ladel, pour soup over the fish. The rouille is nice to add to the soup as flavoring, or to spread on the bread, then dip into the soup. On finishing, you can freeze the rest. This should make enough for 6 hungry people. Bon appetit!

A word of warning for those of you watching your salt. This is a very healthy dish. However, don't add any salt to the pot until the very end to taste as the fish will naturally make the soup a tad salty.