Friday 27 January 2012

Seared Tuna with a Niçoise-Style Green-Olive, Caper & Tomato Salsa

I'm in the mood for turning recipes inside out and upside down this year, so I've dressed this platter of seared tuna strips with a twanging sauce containing most of the ingredients you'd expect to find in a Salad Niçoise: olives, tomatoes, anchovies, garlic, lemon juice, capers, chopped boiled eggs and excellent olive oil. Granted, fresh tuna is very expensive, but this dish is so intensely flavoured that a little goes a long way, especially if you serve it as a starter, with some sliced fresh bread for dipping.

Porcelain platter by David Walters
I wouldn't dream of pairing such a punchy salsa with top-notch sashimi-grade tuna (as if - please allow me a hollow laugh here - I could afford such a thing) but this peppy dressing is great for perking up slices cut from a slab of commonplace fresh tuna.

You may notice a conspicuous lack of chopped boiled eggs in the picture above.  This is because my younger basset hound, a thieving little miss, stole my just-boiled wedges of egg off the table while I was getting ready to take the photograph. At first, I couldn't understand where my eggs had gone, and it was only when I saw her guilty expression and the tell-tale crumbs of yolk clinging to her whiskers that the penny dropped. I considered boiling another batch of eggs, but I was pressed for time, and the tuna slices were in danger of drying out, so I snapped the dish and then gave the little brat a desultory scolding.  (Any tongue-whipping delivered to a basset hound has to be half-hearted, because they pay no attention at all.)

No one in my family would taste this, let alone eat it, because it contained two tiny fillets of anchovy. If you're also a loather of anchovies, you may leave them out, but consider yourself struck off my Christmas-card list forever.

(Oh, do please give them a try. Pounded to a paste and well blended with the other ingredients, they add a lovely savoury note to the sauce, and don't taste at all fishy.)

Seared Tuna with a Caper, Green Olive and Tomato Salsa
350 g fresh tuna (ask your fishmonger for a nice thick steak)
salt and milled black pepper
1 T (15 ml) sunflower oil, or similar light vegetable oil
2 extra-large free-range eggs
2 ripe tomatoes
8 green olives, pitted
1 T (15 ml) brined capers, drained
4 sprigs fresh parsley, plus extra for garnish
2 slim anchovy fillets
1 clove of garlic, peeled
 the juice of a small lemon
4 T (60 ml) extra-virgin olive oil

First sear the tuna. Pat the fish dry using kitchen paper and season lightly with salt and milled black pepper.  Heat a frying pan over a very high flame for two or so minutes, then add the vegetable oil. Wait for 15 seconds, or until the oil begins to shimmer and the pan is blazing hot (but not yet smoking).  Lay the steak in the hot oil and sear it for 45-60 seconds on one side, or until the band of opaque, cooked fish on the underside of the steak is about 3 mm thick. Flip the steak over with a pair of tongs or a fork and sear its underside for another minute or so. Now turn the steak so it's standing vertically and very quickly sear the thinner edges, on all sides, for 30 seconds. The tuna should be raw and still cold on the inside when you're done searing it. Put the steak on a plate, let it cool for 10 minutes, then cover with clingfilm and set aside.

Fill a saucepan with water and bring it to a gentle boil. Slide the eggs into the simmering water and set a timer for 9 minutes. Cut a shallow cross through the skins of the tomatoes and add them to the water in which the eggs are boiling. Leave the tomatoes in the boiling water for 2 minutes, then lift them out of the water and set them to cool on your kitchen counter. When the timer goes off, fill the pan with cold water and set it in the sink under a dribbling tap for 5 minutes, or until the eggs are cold.

Now make the salsa. Finely chop the green olives and capers and set them to one side. Pound the garlic and anchovies to a smooth paste using a mortar and pestle or the blade of a heavy knife. Scrape the paste into a mixing bowl and stir in the lemon juice, olive oil, parsley and the reserved chopped olives and capers.  Strip the skin off the blanched tomatoes (it should come away easily), halve them, and use a teaspoon to scoop their seeds - these are packed with umami - into the mixing bowl. Cut the fleshy bits out of the centres of the tomatoes and discard. Cut the remaining tomato flesh into small, neat cubes and add these to the mixing bowl. Stir the salsa gently and season to taste with black pepper (you shouldn't need to add any salt, as the anchovies are quite salty).

Using a very sharp knife, cut the cooled tuna into strips, and arrange these on a platter. Spoon the salsa over the tuna and garnish with a few little sprigs of flat-leaf parsley. Peel the eggs, chop them fairly finely, and scatter them over the tuna (that is, if your dog hasn't scoffed them). Serve immediately (or keep tightly covered with clingfilm, adding the parsley garnish at the last minute) in the fridge for up to 3 hours.

Serves 4, as a starter.
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Sunday 22 January 2012

Salad of Prickly Pears, Feta and Watercress

The sweetly perfumed flesh of a chilled prickly pear is something I really look forward in midsummer, and I buy them whenever I see them to use in fruit salads. They are not everyone's cup of tea because they're crammed with nubbly, crunchy seeds, but I can't resist them because they remind me of my childhood. I was interested to see, when I tweeted the picture below earlier today, that other people of a Certain Age also fondly remembered eating cold prickly pears as children.  Food and wine pundit Michael Olivier, who grew up on a farm near Cape Town, recalled how his family's housekeeper picked the pears using an empty Lucky Star pilchard tin, and then swept them across the lawn to remove the prickles. Another of my friends, Cape Town writer Penny Haw, tweeted: 'You gave me a happy reminder of my dear Dad, who'd risk all manner of perforation to get his paws on prickly pears.'

Bowl by David Walters. See my note about the damask napkin at end of this page.
I thought I'd try prickly pears in a salad, for a change, and I hope you'll enjoy this unusual combination of green prickly pears, creamy feta and watercress, sparked with a little dried chilli.  The first time I made this, I whisked up a fairly complex vinaigrette flavoured with mint, ginger and garlic, but it stomped rudely all over the simple, clean tastes of the key ingredients. On my second try, I sprinkled the salad with just a little olive oil and lemon juice, and a pinch of salt, and this more restrained dressing brought all the flavours together nicely.

This recipe is partly inspired by Nigella Lawson's Watermelon, Feta and Black Olive Salad, an intriguing combination of salty and sweet (with a punch of red onion and mint) that has spread like a rash across the Internet and, in the process, become a bit of a cliché. I don't know for sure that Nigella was the first to write this recipe down, but if she was, she deserves all credit for it. (And I think a few crescents of very finely sliced red onion would add some real zip to my recipe.) 

Please don't be put off by the idea of peeling prickly pears. The skin comes away very easily and neatly, and you won't be pricked if you use a fork and a very sharp paring knife. I've used green-fleshed prickly pears here, but this is just as good with pink ones. 

If this recipe convinces you that prickly pears are worth buying, try my Prickly Pear Granita, or my Prickly Pear and Grape Salad with Frozen Rosemary Sugar.

Salad of Prickly Pears, Feta and Watercress

6 large, ripe prickly pears, chilled overnight
2 'wheels' (about 140 g) creamy feta cheese, cubed
a small bunch of fresh watercress, leaves picked
1 tsp (5 ml) dried red chilli flakes, or more, to taste
salt and milled black pepper
a little extra-virgin olive oil
fresh lemon juice

First peel the cold pears. Cut about 5 mm off the top and bottom of each pear, using a kitchen cloth or a rubber glove to grasp the pear while you do so. Place a pear, upright, on a chopping board. Push the tines of a fork into the top of the pear to hold it fast. Now, using the tip of a sharp paring knife, make four vertical cuts, about 3mm deep, into the skin of the pear, scoring from top to bottom. Use the fork to peel away the skin in sections; it will come away easily if the pears are ripe. Cut the pear in half vertically and slice into thick half-moons. Repeat with the remaining pears.  

Put the pears in a bowl and add the feta, watercress and chilli flakes. Season with salt and pepper (but go easy on the salt, as the feta is already quite salty). Toss all the ingredients gently together. Pile the mixture onto a platter (or onto individual plates) and drizzle with a little olive oil and a generous spritz of lemon juice. Serve immediately.

Serves 6 as a starter. 

Note about the damask napkin in the picture:  I'm a sucker for heavy damask napkins, and treasure the old ones I have, but they're looking more pink than white these days (having done heavy duty mopping up red wine puddles over the years).  I was very pleased to find a bolt of prettily patterned damask at Fabric World in Main Road, Wynberg, and astonished when they charged me - last year's price, so don't quote me - only R13 per napkin to stitch the edges, which was very neatly done. I spent about R330 for 12 napkins, and I think they're worth every cent.  
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Wednesday 18 January 2012

Sandwich-Press Chicken, Potato and Green Bean Salad

A quick sizzle between the plates of a sandwich press produces the most soft and succulent chicken strips imaginable, probably because they're very quickly cooked on both sides at the same time, and thus have no chance to stiffen or toughen, as they tend to do in a pan. Tossed with some hot spuds, snappy green beans and a garlicky lemon dressing, they make a most delicious warm salad. Of course you can make this using an ordinary frying pan, but if you do have a sandwich press, give this method a try. You'll never again cook chicken strips any other way.

This does work with deboned chicken breasts that have been flattened between two sheets of clingfilm (see Quick, Easy Sandwich-Press Chicken Breasts for Kids), but for best results, use a pack or two of slim chicken fillets, namely, the little 'extra' strip of chicken found on the underside of the breast.  I used some lovely pink fir potatoes, but any type of new potato will do. I've also added finely chopped rocket to this salad. Rocket is almost always served as a whole salad leaf (because it's so pretty, I imagine) but it's also very good treated as you would a herb leaf: try slicing or chopping it very finely and adding it to omelettes, mayonnaises, dressings, and so on.

Sandwich-Press Chicken, Potato and Green Bean Salad
400 g new potatoes
2 x 400 g packs chicken fillets
salt and milled black pepper
1 T (15 ml) olive oil
300 g fine green beans, stalk ends trimmed
a small bunch of  rocket, finely chopped

For the dressing:
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
a pinch of salt
1 tsp (5 ml) Dijon mustard, or similar prepared mustard
4 T (60 ml) freshly squeezed lemon juice
a pinch of white sugar
200 ml extra-virgin olive oil

Cook the potatoes in plenty of boiling, salted water for 20-25 minutes, or until just tender. Fish them out of the pan and drain them in a colander, but leave the water behind in the pot.

In the meantime, make the dressing. Put the crushed garlic, salt, mustard, lemon juice and sugar into a large mixing bowl and stir the mixture until the salt and sugar have dissolved. Whisk in the olive oil to make a smooth emulsion. Set aside.

Heat the sandwich press for 5 minutes. Peel the plastic off the first pack of chicken strips and season them - without removing them from the pack - with salt and milled black pepper (or a seasoning salt of your choice). Open the sandwich press and pour the oil over the base. Close it briefly (stand well back) so the upper surface is coated with oil. Tip the chicken strips, salted side down, onto the base plate, quickly push them apart with a fork and close the press. Cook for a minute and a half to two minutes, or until there is no trace of pinkness when you cut through a strip. Tip the chicken strips into the bowl containing the dressing, and cook the second batch in the same way. Halve the warm potatoes (or leave them whole, if they're tiny), add them to the bowl containing the chicken and toss gently to coat.

Fill a bowl with iced water, add a handful of ice cubes and set to one side. Bring the water on the stove back up to the boil and throw in the beans. Cook for 2-3 minutes, or until  just tender, but with a slight bite. Drain the beans, plunge them into the iced water and let them sit there for 5 minutes, or until they're quite cold.  Pat the beans dry with kitchen paper and add them to the mixing bowl along with the chopped rocket. Toss well, season to taste with salt and milled black pepper, tip onto a platter and serve immediately.

If you're making this in advance, cook the beans no less than 30 minutes before you serve the salad, as they will turn a muddy khaki if left to stand for too long.

Serves 6 as a main course; 8 as a side salad.

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Tuesday 10 January 2012

Panfried Linefish with a Light Chive, Garlic & Yoghurt Sauce

Delicate, whisker-thin French chives are a most underrated ingredient, I think, and mostly because they're not always easy to find on supermarket shelves. I love the mild green onioniness of fine chives, and they look so pretty finely snipped and strewn all over salads, omelettes, chicken and fish.

Panfried Linefish with a Light Chive, Garlic & Yoghurt Sauce

Here's a very light 'n lean, herby sauce made with thick natural yoghurt, lemon and a nice jab of fresh garlic. This is a variation of a garlicky low-fat concoction I make in buckets whenever I'm trying to stick to a nasty diet healthy eating plan (and, yes, it's that time of year again). As for the yoghurt: you will hear food pundits now and then fussing that yoghurt and fish are an unacceptable combination.  This is nonsense, and a bit insulting, I reckon, to the grand culinary tradition of Indian fish curries enriched and enhanced with this versatile and healthy ingredient.

The hardest thing, I find, when trying to eat with some restraint, is foregoing butter. I can do without chocolate, cakes and biscuits, I can resist biltong and bacon and crisps if I have to, but I get very long teeth when I have to face a baked potato without a big sunshiny dollop of salty, melty butter. The same goes for toast, and many other lovely foodstuffs. I have discovered, though, that the stinging garlickiness of a lavishly herbal yoghurt sauce (plus a few dabs of Tabasco) goes a long way towards making up for severe butter deprivation. Mashed with the back of a fork into a big, floury baked potato, this sauce is quite addictive, and sends up wonderful vapours as the heat of the spud releases the aromatic oils in the garlic and herbs.

You can add anything you like to this basic yoghurt mix: chopped capers, gherkins, chopped fresh green chillies, crushed brined peppercorns, grated fresh ginger, mashed anchovies, minced olives, and so on - whatever sets your tastebuds a-tingle.

A dollop of good home-made mayonnaise - or Hellmann's Original - will improve this sauce, nicely rounding out its flavours, but you can leave the mayo out if you're on the strictest of diets. (I don't. What harm can such a small quantity of mayo do?)

In the picture above, I've served the fish with crushed baby potatoes lightly slicked with olive oil.  You can boil the spuds in salted water if you have the time, but I just prick them and sling them in the microwave.

Panfried Linefish with a Light Chive, Garlic & Yoghurt Sauce

4 thick pieces of firm-textured linefish, such as yellowtail or dorado
salt and milled black pepper
3 Tbsp (45 ml) olive oil

For the sauce:
2 cloves garlic, peeled
a pinch of flaky sea salt
2 tsp (10 ml) Dijon mustard
the finely grated zest and juice of a small lemon
a fistful (about half a cup; 125 ml) of fresh parsley, stems removed
a fistful (about half a cup; 125 ml) of fresh basil, stems removed
a thumb-thick bundle of French chives
1 cup (250 ml) thick natural yoghurt; use full-fat Greek yoghurt if calories aren't an issue
3 Tbsp (45 ml) good-quality mayonnaise, such as Hellmann's [optional]
salt and milled black pepper
a little olive oil, for drizzling

First make the sauce. Pound the garlic cloves and sea salt to a fine paste, using a mortar and pestle. Stir in the mustard, lemon zest and lemon juice. Scrape the paste into a small mixing bowl. Very finely chop the parsley, basil and three quarters of the chives, and add them to the bowl. Set the remaining chives to one side. Stir in the yoghurt and mayonnaise [optional] and season to taste with salt and milled black pepper. Alternatively, and if you'd like a smooth, pale green mixture, blitz all the ingredients (except the yoghurt) together using the jug attachment on a hand-blender. Stir in the yoghurt and season to taste.

You can use the sauce right away, but I've found it improves and thickens on standing in the fridge for a few hours.

Now, the fish. Remove the skin and bones and season the fish lightly on both sides with salt and pepper. Heat a non-stick frying pan until it's very hot, then add the olive oil. Wait until the oil is shimmering (but nowhere near smoking) and place the fish fillets, a few at a time, in the pan. Press down lightly on the fish with a spatula or the back of a fork.

After two minutes (depending on the thickness of your fish) take a peek underneath. If the fish has a nice golden finish, flip it over and cook it for another minute or two, or until just cooked through. I can't give you precise times - cooking times differ according to the type and size of the fish fillets - but you will know when your fish is ready when you press a fork through the thickest part of the fillet and find a tender, moist, gently flaking interior, with no sign of glassiness.  If you're not counting calories, add a big knob of butter to the pan and use a teaspoon to baste the fish with the butter during the last minute of cooking.

At this point, immediately lift the fish pieces from the pan and lay them to drain for a minute on a double piece of kitchen paper. While they're draining, very finely snip the remaining chives.

Pile the crushed baby potatoes - if you've made them - on warmed plates and place the fish fillets on top. Spoon a few dollops of cold yoghurt sauce on top of each piece of fish and sprinkle with the reserved chopped chives and a decent drizzle of olive oil.

Serves 4.

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