Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Sesame-Crusted Tilapia w/Tangerine Glaze, Lettuce Wrap Salads

I've been on a salad binge, and since my family isn't too big on salads, I've had to be creative. For Monday night I thought about making lettuce wrap salads - little self-contained salads wrapped in a lettuce leaf. It actually worked, and the whimsy of it sorta got them interested in salad. :-)

Seared sesame-crusted fish is passe as far as fine dining is concerned, but it's still delicious and very doable in a home kitchen. One warning: this smokes when you cook it, so if you don't have good ventilation, you may want to think twice before attempting it. If you have an old cast-iron skillet, try it on the grill outdoors.

Sesame-Crusted Tilapia with Tangerine Glaze
Lettuce Wrap Salads

Sesame-Crusted Tilapia with Tangerine Glaze
(serves 3-4)
For the fish:
1 lb (or a bit more) fresh Tilapia fillets, cut into 4" pieces
1/4 c. bread crumbs
1/4 c. sesame seeds, ground in a coffee grinder (don't over-process or they'll turn to paste)
2 eggs
~3 T olive oil for frying

Toss the bread crumbs and ground sesame seeds together in a bowl. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs and about 1.5 tsp of salt (this is the only salt on the fish, so it's OK for the egg to be salty). One at a time, dredge the fish in egg, then the crumb-sesame seed mixture, and set on a cutting board or wax-paper-lined baking sheet. Allow to rest for 10 minutes at room temperature.

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a large saute pan over medium-high heat, until nearly smoking. Carefully place all of the fish in the pan and allow to sear and brown well on one side. Using tongs, carefully turn each piece and sear the other side. Some of the crumb-sesame coating will become loose in the oil and begin to burn. There will be a lot of smoke. Muscle through and get that fish done, being careful to move fish toward the center of the pan as bits at the edges of the pan burn. (Test for done-ness with the smooth part of the tongs; uncooked meat, poultry and fish is soft when raw, but firm when cooked.) As they are done, remove pieces from pan to a paper-towel-covered plate to drain. Keep warm.

For the Tangerine Glaze
2 medium tangerines, juiced, seeds (but not pulp) removed
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 small shallot, minced
1 scant T minced fresh ginger
2 T seasoned rice vinegar
1-2 T sugar
~2 tsp. light olive oil
salt to taste

This is a technique taught to me by my cousin Jack Riebel, Executive Chef at the Dakota in Minneapolis. Fruit juice reductions enjoy greatly intensified flavors. Adding aromatics such as garlic and shallot give further depth to them. Finally, adding vinegar adds piquancy. Rice vinegar has sweetness and a little salt, which compliment the fruit beautifully. What you have in the end is intensely fruity, but also savory and bright.

Place oil, garlic, shallot and ginger in a small saucepan over medium heat, and saute until softened, stirring constantly, about 2 minutes. Add all remaining ingredients except salt, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until 2/3 of liquid has evaporated off (about 40-50 minutes), stirring occasionally. Strain out all the solids by pouring through a small fine-meshed sieve. Press the solids with the back of a spoon to force through the juices, and scrape strained juice from the bottom of the sieve. Remove any remaining solids from the saucepan, and return the liquid to the pan (scrape the bowl with a small spatula to get as much as possible back into the pan). Return to low heat, and reduce further, by about 1/2 again, until it is syrupy and intensely flavored. Taste for salt - it only needs a tiny bit to brighten the flavors, maybe 1/4 tsp.

To serve, place the fish on a warm plate, and using a teaspoon, spoon a little of the glaze over each piece.

Lettuce Wrap Salads
(serves 3)
3 large green leaf lettuce leaves, washed, dried, and the base trimmed off
a small pile of carrot ribbons - peel a carrot, then, using the peeler, shave off thick ribbons (only the deep orange part, not the pale core)
a small pile of cucumber ribbons - peel the skin from a cucumber using a peeler, then shave off thick ribbons of cucumber as above (only the pale flesh, not the seeds or skin)
6 cherry tomatoes, halved (quartered if they are larger)
3 scallions, halved lengthwise, then cut into 1/2" pieces
2-3 oz. brie cheese, rind removed, briefly warmed in the microwave (it will liquify slightly)
small amount of vinaigrette of your choosing (I used some leftover blood-orange vinaigrette from a previous meal - blood orange juice, a little champaign vinegar, minced garlic, sugar, salt, pepper, olive oil)
3 decorative toothpicks

Lay out the lettuce leaves on a board. Smear a little of the brie down the center of each. Arrange cucumber, carrot, scallion and tomato in a line on the brie. Drizzle with a little vinaigrette. Carefully roll up and hold shut with a toothpick at the center. Place on a plate and refrigerate until served.

I started the glaze first, as it takes the longest. Then made the salad wraps. When the glaze had been strained and was nearly done, I finished the fish and served everything.

The trick with fruit reductions is to let them cook slowly. Many liquid ingredients benefit from reduction. For example, a high-quality balsamic vinegar will reduce into an intense syrup that is absolutely heavenly with roast pork - it has that raisiny-pruney character that marries so well with pork. Stocks intensify as they reduce as well - the greatest of all sauces, demi glace, is greatly reduced beef stock.

A reduced sugar-vinegar mixture is known in culinary terms as a gastrique. Often the sugar is carmelized before adding vinegar, wine and/or fruit juice. See this Wikipedia entry for more - this is a short, crisp description of how gastriques are made and used. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gastrique

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