Saturday, December 30, 2006

New York Holidays: Top Chef Challenge Christmas Dinner

"Where ever we go, there we cook."

We've been watching that show on Bravo, Top Chef. Don't ask how we got hooked on it, those contest/reality shows are insidious. My theory is that their success is due in large part to Schadenfreude.

I mean, when you watch Rokusaburo Michiba or Hiroyuki Sakai on Iron Chef, you think, "No way in hell could I ever do what those guys are doing." But when we watch Top Chef, mainly our running commentary goes more like this:

"What a bunch of whiners. You have to be kidding me, you can't come up with a better breakfast that you could cook on an open flame on the fly? What the heck is that ugly thing you glopped out?"

In every episode, there is at least a handful of contestants who make us feel very smug. Especially after our cooking shenanigans this month. Eric and I popped out an entire wedding dinner for 60 from our home kitchen for $800, and these chefs can't come up with one nice fancy course when there are two of them working on it? We did a brunch for 35 donors and dancers of my local dance company for $350 again, all cooked in our home kitchen, and these people are whimpering about having to make a decent breakfast in a fire pit on the beach?

Like I said, smug.

Sort of catlike smug.

Our newest challenge though, was looking to be our undoing. Christmas Dinner at my Dad's apartment in New York.

"For this challenge, you will be making an elegant Christmas Dinner for three people. It should be seasonal, beautiful to look at and heart healthy. You may shop at any of the wonderful foodie places in New York to get supplies for your menu, and then you will have two hours in which to cook your meal at the home where it will be served. A bachelor apartment with a galley kitchen."

"But there's a twist! You will only have these tools (pictured left) to work with as well as a refrigerator, a microwave and a gas range with oven."


So, yeah, my Dad doesn't do a lot of heavy-duty gourmet cooking, and like many New Yorkers with small kitchens, he keeps very few implements of cookage on hand, because, let's face it, in New York, you can always stop at a great deli and pick some stuff up. Microwave, or toast or heat it up and you're done. Though he does have a very helpful kitty who likes to sit on the table and observe...

Every Christmas, we sweep into town and want to make a nice fancy dinner for the holidays. And every year, there are fewer implements of cookage.

"Hey, Dad? Where's the stockpot you used to have?"

"Oh, I threw it away, it took up too much space and I never used it."

"Dad? Where's the 12-inch non-stick skillet you used to have?"

"I gave it away. It was too big and I never used it."

"Um, Dad? Where's the copper mixing bowl you used to have?"

"Oh, I threw it out -- it looked terrible and I never used it."

Now, oddly enough, he actually has a larger kitchen with MUCH better appliances than we have. The cooking range is gas and the oven is a wide one with much more reliable temperatures than our little sad one in San Francisco. And his refrigerator is nearly as tall as Eric. I dream about refrigerators like that.

The one pictured here is actually NOT his fridge, but the small one in the small room of our hotel.

As we began planning our attack for Christmas Dinner, we both realized that shopping on Christmas Day would be insane, and since we were busy with running errands around New York in the days before, we began shopping and storing things in our hotel fridge. I guarantee that this little dorm fridge has never before been so stuffed with food.

I can't imagine what Housekeeping thought.

Now just because my Dad doesn't keep his kitchen supplied doesn't mean he doesn't know what's what. For Christmas, he gave us a set of Mario Batali measuring bowls. These groovy little orange jobbies are terrific, with a lovely feel to them. Easy to grab, marked with two useful measurements on each (like 1-1/2 cups and 3/4 cup) they have already earned their place in our hearts and definitely our prep board. To see the other nifty things that Mario has out, check out his website. We ran across a few other items in stores, and they always just feel good in your hands.

So our menu for the evening is along a Health and Long Life for the New Year theme.
  • Mixed Olives
  • Lemon-Herb Stuffed Red Snapper Baked in a Salt Crust
  • Long-Life Noodles with Baby Shiitakes and Wood Ear Mushrooms
  • Sauteed Carrots

The fish turned out exceptionally well, actually. We based it on an old Alton Brown recipe that originally called for Striped Bass, but the red snapper looked great at Whole Foods.

Here is the modified recipe:

Herb and Lemon Stuffed Red Snapper Baked in a Salt Crust

  • 2 Red Snappers (1.5-2 lb each) gills removed, fins trimmed (the fishmonger can help you with the cleaning and gill removing.)
  • 4 egg whites (we used a carton of egg whites)
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2 (3 pound) boxes of kosher salt
  • 1 handful parsley
  • 1 lemon, sliced thin
  • 1/2 orange, sliced thin
  • Olive oil

Heat oven to 450 degrees. Cover the bottom of a baking sheet large enough to hold the fish with parchment paper.

Rinse fish inside and out with cold water and drain. Dry with paper towels. Stuff body cavity with herbs and citrus, saving a few lemon slices for garnish. Set aside.

Pour 1 box of salt into a large bowl, add egg whites and water, then the second box of salt. Use your hands to work mixture to a mortar-like consistency.

Lay down a 1/2-inch thick bed for the fish to lay on with a 1-inch clearance on all sides. Lay the fish on this bed and pile the remainder of the salt mortar on top. Work into a smooth dome completely encasing the fish. (Don't worry if the head or tail poke out a little It's really just kinda cute to look at.)

Cook approximately 35 minutes. Check for doneness by pushing the probe of an instant read thermometer through the salt into the fish. When temperature reaches 130 degrees, remove from oven, and rest at room temperature for 5 minutes.

Open the fish at the table by hitting the dome several times with a small hammer and lifting off the slabs of salt. Brush away any stray salt. Gently pull out dorsal (back) fin. Using a fish knife or serrated pie server, make a single incision all the way down the back of the fish and around the gill plate. Then lift the skin off working from the head to the tail. Remove meat from top side of fish, going down one side of the spine then the other. Grasp the tail and remove the skeleton, (it should come up intact). The meat revealed below will slide right off the skin.

Sprinkle meat with a little virgin oil and lemon juice. Serve immediately.


We didn't actually open the fish tableside (no room for that) but instead, I decorated it with alternating slices of lemon and blood oranges cut into little pie slices and arranged on the fish to (hopefully) mimic the look of scales. It also helped immeasurably with covering up any imperfections in the appearance of the fish fillet, and the blood oranges tasted great with the fish itself.

Here's the final plating.

Take that Top Chefs.

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