Sunday, July 24, 2005

Seared Ahi With a Sauce to Die For

Yesterday I was shopping at Costco and came upon some beautiful, thick, fresh (yes, Costco!) ahi tuna steaks. Until last night I'd never seared, nor eaten ahi - at least not the way it should be eaten, which is seared on the outside and pretty much raw on the inside. Something about eating raw fish just doesn't appeal to me. Well, that's all changed. I brought my ahi home, went on-line to to find a recipe that sounded good and set myself to searing and saucing.

Reading the on-line reviews of this particular recipe took the better part of 1 hour, there were so many. Most of them had exclamations like "Oh My God...!", or "OMG...!". I take these seriously, as most of the people who review Epicurious' recipes are seriously good home cooks. After the first bite I had to add my own OMG! to the reviews. Make this recipe and you'll see why.

Pan-Seared Tuna with Ginger-Shitake Cream Sauce
Adapted from Bon Appetit's RSVP, February 1999
From Circa Restaurant, Philadelphia

2 8-ounce ahi tuna steaks, about 1 & 1/2 inches thick
Coarsely-ground Tellicherry pepper
2 tablespoons peanut oil

Sprinkle 1 side of tuna steaks with pepper and press in lightly so it adheres, set aside.

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/3 cup thinly sliced green onions (tops of scallions)
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, finely chopped
4 tablespoons fresh, peeled ginger, finely chopped
5 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 pound fresh shitake mushrooms, stemmed, caps sliced
2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce (any other soy will be overpowering)
1 & 1/2 cups Land O' Lakes Fat Free 1/2 & 1/2 (or, as the original recipe calls for, 1 & 1/2 cups heavy cream, but they're your arteries!)
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice

Melt butter in a large, heavy-bottom sauce pan. Add green onions, cilantro, ginger, and garlic and saute over medium-high heat until aromatic, about 30 - 45 seconds. Mix in mushrooms and soy sauce and simmer for about 30 seconds. Add 1/2 & 1/2 and simmer until sauce lightly coats the back of a spoon, about 3 minutes. Stir in lime juice, 1 tablespoon at a time, tasting as you go along. You may not need all of the juice. Remove sauce from heat and place pan at the back of the stove to keep warm.

In a large, heavy skillet (cast iron is perfect), heat the 2 tablespoons of peanut oil over high heat. Place tuna steaks, pepper side down, in hot oil and sear for 2-3 minutes. Turn the steaks over and continue searing until desired doneness is reached, about 2 minutes for very rare, 3 minutes for rare to medium-rare.

Immediately place warm sauce on plates and arrange tuna steaks on top (don't do what I did - see photo - and put the sauce on top. It ruins the presentation). Serve with wasabi mashed potatoes (recipe is on or jasmine rice with sugar snap peas or other fresh vegetable. One reviewer sauteed thinly sliced carrots and asparagus, which sounds good to me. I picked fresh zucchini out of the garden, grated it and sauteed it with a touch of chili-garlic-lime sauce that I had on hand.

Notes to my boys:
Use peanut oil for this, it has a high smoke point and is necessary for the high heat with which you have to sear the tuna.
When you turn the steaks over, take care not to get too badly spattered with the oil.
One steak was plenty for Clay and I to share. We've saved the other one for leftovers tonight.
The finished ahi is very, very rare on the inside. Even though I was squeemish about it at first, it was delicious and didn't have the raw, fishy taste I was fearing. See? Even your mom can learn a thing or two.

Sunday, July 10, 2005


Cynthia and Mark are here this weekend for the Blues by the Bay. Dinner Friday night was a joint and diverse effort: Cyn brought a dome-shaped turkey meatloaf that was devine and cooked up some sweet brown rice with ginger and a soft, sweet peach. I sauteed zucchs out of the garden with fresh basil, garlic and organic cherry tomatoes, and at the very last minute whipped up this cherry clafoutis with the biggest organic bing cherries I've ever seen! And, yeah, I low-carbed, but you can substitute the real things if you want.

About 4 cups pitted bing cherries
3/4 cup egg substitute or 3 eggs
1/3 cup Splenda or sugar (more to taste, but I like this less sweet)
1 cup fat-free 1/2 & 1/2 (Land O' Lakes) or 3/4 cup milk and 1/4 cream
1 cup unbleached flour
1 tablespoon vanilla
a pinch of salt

Butter a ceramic dish and pre-heat the oven to 350.
With a wire whisk, combine the eggs, sugar, 1/2 & 1/2, flour, vanilla and salt and beat until smooth.
Pour a small amount of batter into the dish and tilt to cover the bottom.
Place the cherries into the dish and spread out to cover bottom.
Pour the rest of the batter over the cherries, pushing the fruit into the batter if necessary.

Bake in a 350 degree oven for about 45 minutes to 1 hour, depending on the size of your dish and the depth of the batter. The top should be golden and a pick inserted in the middle should come out clean.

Let cool for a bit then spoon into bowls and serve with a bit of cream and a sprinkling of cinnamon.

Friday, July 1, 2005

A Little Self-indulgence

As I've stated in an earlier post, I recently took a food writing course from the delightful David Leite that I both loved and found rather intimidating. Below is one of the essays that I wrote and re-wrote and re-wrote and on and on... and that is still a work in progress until I get so sick of it I throw it away. It may not move you, but I sweated mightily over it and found it to be a cathartic piece to write - given my tendency to overdo things, as perfectionists will.

Time ceases to exist for me when it comes to planning a special meal for friends. I pore over recipes, cookbooks, magazines and my own repertoire. Weeks are spent devising a menu, making sure each course will flow smoothly to the next, lists upon lists cluttering my desk, falling out of cookbooks. Each dish must pack the “wow” factor. As a home cook and hostess, my greatest joy in this endeavor is hearing the moans and groans of pleasure from my guests at the taking of their first bite, be it dinner, breakfast, a luncheon or afternoon tea.

On more than one occasion, however, my perfectionism has run amok as I tried too hard and in the wrong direction; the error of my ways discussed in the gossipy coffee klatches of those very people whom I tried to please and, admittedly, impress.

Years ago I served on a committee to build a playground in our city park. Committee members took turns holding the meetings in their homes and my turn was approaching. Having become a recent devotee and charter subscriber to Victoria magazine, at my meeting I decided to serve tea.

Out came the flower-encrusted silver tea service. China tea cups my mother had given me years before, delicate hand painted China plates, crystal and linens came next. I baked for a week, preparing tiny tarts, cakes and sweet tea breads. Ice cubes with tiny, star-shaped borage flowers imprisioned within, filled my freezer for the herbed iced tea I would serve. In a frenzy of last minute preparation, the table was laden with the fruits of my labor: plates piled high with cakes and tarts, homemade violet jelly glistening in an ornate white china bowl sitting next to a dish of whipped cream sprinkled with fresh lavender flowers.

The pots and pitchers of tea were just ready as my first team member arrived. In the door she came, large file folder in hand, mouth engaged in talk of the business at hand when, mid-sentence, she stopped dead as her eyes fell on my table. Unable to speak, mouth agape in what I can only describe as horror, she sat down frantically looking for a place to set her folder.

“This is supposed to be a meeting,” she sputtered.

As the rest of the committee arrived, my beautiful table was met with a mixture of giggles, rolling eyes, silence, and a few murmurings of “How nice - tea.” And in that moment, surrounded by this group of no nonsense, get-things-done women, the thought occurred to me that I may have gone too far…

Flash forward: New Year’s Eve 1999. To mark this momentous occasion, ten friends are invited to spend the evening with us, dressed to the nines, dining sumptuously and sharing our way into the new century. Appetizers and drinks will be served at nine. Dinner will begin around ten followed by dessert after shooting off fireworks at the stroke of midnight. My plan for a simple ‘small plates’ menu has morphed into seven courses and I’m sweating bullets.

The hour has come. The table is set: linen, crystal, silver, China, hoards of small vases filled with flowers, candles, and sparklers at each place setting. As guests arrive, dressed in all their finery, music plays softly in the background, appetizers and drinks are served and the evening is off to a smashing start.

Dinner begins, the wine is flowing and conversation is lively. My guests “oooh” and “aaah” then fall silent, eyes wide, as I serve black-eyed pea cakes with a red pepper mayonnaise followed by tomato-fennel soup topped with a dollop of crème fraiche; a skewer of prawns and red onion, grilled to juicy tenderness, carefully balanced on each bowl. Silence was never so golden. They fail to notice my hair beginning to come undone or the stain from the sauce that somehow missed my oversized apron, marring my black silk dress.

Like a Jack-in-the-box, up and down from the table, in and out of the kitchen, I put the finishing touches on the spicy linguine with sauteed calamari as I begin the herb-crusted beef tenderloin with a red wine reduction.

One guest, yet another no-nonsense, simpler-is-better woman who, by the way, did not dress for dinner, repeatedly remarks on my frenzied activity. “Sit down!” she commands. “Why are you knocking yourself out like this?” she demands to know.
Following me into the kitchen, mumbling something about “overkill”, she stands with arms crossed, one eyebrow raised high and observes the mess that is my domain: sauce-stained lists and recipes everywhere, sink and counters piled high with crusty pots and pans, then delivers the coup de grace that is my un-doing, “You don’t have to be perfect all the time, you know.”

Blowing hair from my eyes, a slight tic makes my right cheek quiver as I deliver the grapefruit-mint sorbet to my guests, its pale green, icy crystals glistening in tiny liqueur glasses. I slip into the kitchen to plate the salads of butter lettuce topped with fans of thinly sliced pear, shavings of frozen blue cheese, toasted spicy pecans, champagne vinaigrette, small bunches of red currants tucked here and there. As I begin to pull the flans with their raspberry sauce out of the fridge, I silently fume, “This from a woman whose garden begs to be featured on the cover of House and Garden magazine? Who has time to garden like that?”

In recent years I have scaled back the more dramatic aspects of entertaining, realizing that there are some on whom the effort will be forever lost. And while I still strive for perfection, I have narrowed the scope of my efforts, it dawning on me that spending time with my guests is an important element to giving a dinner party. And if I find myself veering too close to the edge of over-production, there is always my husband, my biggest, most ardent fan, who will gently steer me away from the precipice. He thinks I'm always perfect.