Surf And Soil

About ten years ago, we were in France with Christine’s family staying at a place near Uzès. One evening we went to dinner at l’Amphitryon, which had been recommended by someone. A perfect evening, with excellent service by the very friendly chef-owner, left two lasting memories: a bottle of Crozes-Hermitage made by a very small producer who I don’t remember, and a small dish of baby octopus and asparagus. It was a perfect, elegant synthesis of field and sea, where neither dominated and the subtle sweetnesses of both main ingredients twined around each other seamlessly. I told him as much, and he smiled and nodded and was pleased that I understood his work. The warmth of his spirit really came out in his food.

For some reason, that dish was in my head yesterday morning, and as a result day three of the seafood extravaganza turned out to be the best. In part that was because we had some dear friends come by and share it with us. We hadn’t seen them in ages, so I took a little time to make it as well as I had imagined it over the course of the morning. Usually when I can see a dish clearly before I begin cooking, I can be pretty sure it will come out well. And this one snapped into focus quickly on the walk back up the hill in the sun, carrying a bag of unforseen inspiration: when Milo and I walked down there this morning to buy coffee beans, the local store actually had both sea beans and morels, so I got excited and bought a handful of each.

We began with a remix of what we ate the night before: pieces of black cod fillet that I marinated in Denjang and honey (instead of red miso and maple syrup) and then baked/broiled until the plump rectangles beautifully caramelized on top. I rested them in their plates so the juices would become a sauce, and garnished each piece with a frond or two of the lemon marigold. It’s a richly rewarding ingredient to play with.

Next up I took some potato-leek soup that someone else had made and was sitting in the fridge and diluted it with some nice chickeny stock and then pushed it all through the tamis to smoothen and lose the distracting flecks of skin and leek fiber. The tamis might be the single most luxurifying piece of low-tech equipment a cook can have on hand. It makes a good soup into a sensual treat.

While everyone worked on that, I ran back and forth getting the main attraction together. We’d been talking about crispy fried squid since receiving the goods, so I promised that the tentacles would get that treatment. The bodies, though, I sprinkled with dehydrated spruce tips and a bit of salt and then vacuum-sealed them and slid them into a steaming tub of 59˚C water to get all tender and fragrant and shit. I got the method from Aki and Alex’s cookbook, which I’ve had for a little while and am enjoying. It’s an accessible approach to some of  the same things that Modernist Cuisine tackles, but for about a thirtieth the price.

They refer to cooking squid this way for three hours, and then charring it with a torch, so that’s what I did, though it was more like four and the torch ran out of gas so the last one only got half-charred. In there with the squid was another bag of baby beet stems with an ice cube of beef demi-glace thrown in for good measure, and a third held three diced new potatoes that I had rummaged for earlier with a pinch of salt. The potatoes spent about two hours in there; the book goes into some detail about what happens to starches when they’re cooked for a while in this temperature range, then chilled, then finished at a high temperature.

Essentially, in this temperature range the starch molecules relax and absorb water, hydrating and gelatinizing the starch. When subsequently chilled, they then form a stable gel, so a second cooking results in a firmer result that makes for non-gummy mashed potatoes and exceptionally crisp fried ones. After the water bath, I dropped the potato bag in ice water and then put it in the fridge until it was time to finish them in some duck fat, sizzling gently until they flirted with dark brown on all sides. I cut one of our homemade chorizo into pieces and got it sizzling, then added the morels, then the sea beans, and then the peas–all separated by a few minutes so they’d each be cooked just right–and then took the pan off the heat. The tentacles had the customary flour-egg-panko dredging and got fried to an appealingly russet crunch.

I strained and saved the liquid from both the squid and beet bags, and combined them in a bowl. To this pale pink mixture I added olive oil, red wine vinegar, mustard, garlic, and pepper to make a heady vinaigrette. I cut the beet stems into short segments, since they hadn’t quite achieved full noodledom (I got this idea from Linda, who likely cooked hers hotter and longer, but I needed to keep the water temp squid-friendly so I compromised. They were al dente rather than limp and twirlable, so the shorter lengths made sense, especially given the bite-sized pieces of everything else.

Assembly was straightforward. Some of the morel-sea bean ragout, potatoes, and beet stems, then slices of squid body, then crunchy tentacles, and then a perfect 63˚C duck egg. I had put a half dozen into the bath and raised the temp after the other things came out, so the eggs had enough time to get set. In the future, I might shave a degree off, since they seemed a tad firmer than chicken eggs get, but the consistency of the yolk was truly a thing of beauty. The ragout was a winner, and the bright, smoky bites of chorizo added an excellent note. Meltingly tender and crunchy squid, salty sea beans, sweet peas, earthy morels, beets between sweet and earthy, crisp potatoes, and a sharp vinaigrette that echoed the squid and beet flavors, all swaddled in the unctuous duck egg: success. Duck eggs are just eggier (in a good way) than chicken eggs, and the yolk mixed with the vinaigrette to make a superlative sauce. All the elements spoke clearly, and harmonized together to great effect. This is one of the best things I’ve eaten in a while.

And that’s mostly due to having let all the components cook separately, to an ideal doneness, and then combining them on the plate. It’s the easiest way to make food sing. I love a big one-pot stew as much as anybody, but when the ingredients are this fresh and there’s a little bit of extra time, letting everything reach its peak individually is the only way to cook. And little things, like the demi-glace in the beet stems and saving that liquid for the vinaigrette, can make a big difference to the result; that slightly meaty note helped amplify the morels and the chorizo, making the dish more substantial as well as elegant. We finished with salad, bread, and smoked camembert, then a little dessert I’ll write about tomorrow.

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I'm a painter who happens to also spend a lot of time growing, making, and writing about food. I'm particularly interested in the intersection of frugal peasant cooking techniques and haute improvisation. And I have a really great personality.

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