Thursday Night Smackdown: A Narrow Victory

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Paradise City: Where the grass is green and the girl are pretty. Won’t you please take me home?

Tonight’s smackdown beatdown, courtesy of Sally Schneider’s The Improvisational Cook: Swordfish poached in shallot-thyme scented olive oil, leek “noodles” with creme fraiche and hazelnut oil, and crispy risotto cakes.

Unlike last week’s smackdown, with flavors that exploded on the tongue, this meal is full of melting textures and richly subtle flavors. Although I was defeated handily by the risotto cakes because of my own shortsightedness, we redeemed ourselves with clear victories over both fish and leeks to eke out the win.

First the bad.

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Just an urchin livin’ under the street.

I made extra farro risotto earlier this week, reserving some without the artichoke hearts I added to that night’s dinner for these cakes. Unfortunately, I underestimated how badly the lack of starch-laden sauce would betray me when it came to keeping the risotto in neat little cakes for frying. Things started out okay…

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I’m a hard case that’s tough to beat.

When I tried to flip the cakes, they made a run for the border and totally lost their shit. Since this was (1) only the first part of the smackdown beatdown and (2) I still had two more cakes waiting for their turn in the pan, I was somewhat concerned… until I speared a couple of crispy fried farro nuggets out of the pan. The flavors of the farro and parmigiano came through and were further richened by the good olive oil they’d been frying in, while the outside of the kernel was brown and crisp.

Marshalling the troops, I decided to throw the whole mess of farro in to the pan and fry it up home fry-style. Spreading the farro in an even layer in the bottom of the skillet, I cranked the heat up a little and let the entire bottom develop a crisp crust. After a few minutes, I broke it up and tossed the farro around, then repeated the whole process, scraped my home fries onto a plate and stashed them in the oven’s warming drawer to wait for the fish and leeks. Voila, farro home fries.
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You gotta keep pushin’ for the fortune and fame.

Meanwhile, I’d set a pan of olive oil (blended with a little canola, since this dish wiped out our remaining olive oil stock) to steep with shallots and dried thyme (the recipe specified fresh, but I’d forgotten to pick them up and our local Pathmark does not stock its shelves in accordance with The Improvisational Cook), while my partner in smackdown-ery beatdown-ery painstakingly filleted some giant leeks into “noodles” and set them on the stove for their first round of cooking. The smells emanating from each of these pans were joys to inhale, and did wonders to lift the spirits following the risotto cakes’ disheartening and unexpected victory.
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Take it to the end of the line.

Once the olive oil-shallot-thyme tea was sufficiently steeped, I turned the heat way down and slipped the fish into the pan and left it to poach, occasionally spooning some of the hot oil over the top. Meanwhile, Brian cooked the leeks through in boiling water, drained them and returned them to the hot pan to dry out a bit and prepare themselves for the oncoming creamy onslaught. Feeling the sting of my failure and wanting to make some other contribution, I tossed some hazelnuts into a pan to toast for a garnish that would echo the flavor in the leeks and add some much needed textural contrast.

Possibly the best part of the evening, other that the actual eating of the food, was putting the creme fraiche into the pan of leeks and watching it quickly turn from a watery-looking cream to a luscious sauce that clung to every strand of leek. I hereby proclaim that from this day forward, all vegetables should be coated with creme fraiche.

Okay, not really. But in this specific instance, it’s wondrous:

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Tell me who you’re gonna believe! Take me down to the Paradise City.

The final product: subtly onion-y leeks perfumed with a delicate, slightly nutty sauce and the most richly-flavored and tenderest swordfish we’ve ever had; it trembled and flaked apart at the mere sight of a fork approaching the bowl, so great was its wish to please. The farro home fries were good but got a bit lost among the richness of its bowl mates. There was unanimous agreement that the fish was the highlight of the meal, and also to the proposition that the three elements of the dish, while each independently delicious, were not necessarily the best running mates.

The leek recipe also made way more leeks that we could consume, so we’ll probably cut that down next time (the recipe below is pre-cut-down for your dining convenience). But maybe not, because I think a small bowl of these leeks with a barely-cooked sunny-side up egg on top would be a heavenly breakfast, with the yolk mixing with the warm leeks and their coating to create a sauce so rich that I need a glass of cold water just to write about it.

Final score: Us 1, Food 0, with an honorable mention to the risotto for moxie.

Oil-poached swordfish with creme fraiche-hazelnut leek “noodles” for 2
adapted from Sally Scheider’s The Improvisational Cook

For the fish:
2 swordfish steaks, about 6-8 ounces
2 good-size shallots
1 tsp dried thyme
salt (kosher is best)
olive oil (or mixture of olive and canola) to coat the bottom of your pan about 1/3 of an inch deep. Don’t use your fancy olive oil for this.

Salt the fish and let it sit while you get the oil ready. Slice the shallots thinly and put them in a pan with the oil and thyme over medium-low heat; cook for about 10 minutes, until the oil is saturated with the flavors (you’ll have to taste it to see; if you have some bread lying around, dip a corner in). Slide the fish in and cook for 3-5 minutes a side depending on thickness. If you remember to, spoon some of the oil over the fish as it poaches; if you forget this, no big whoop. Poke at a corner of the fish with a fork to check for doneness, it will flake at the lightest touch. Done! If you’d like, turn the heat back up and make yourself a crispy garnish with the shallots remaining in the pan; fry them until gold brown and remove to a paper towel to drain. Serve the fish with a drizzle of the shallot/thyme oil and the fried shallots.

For the leeks:
3 leeks
1-2 tbsp creme fraiche (sub some heavy cream if you don’t have this)
drizzle hazelnut oil (sub some walnut oil if you can’t find hazelnut)
s&p

Trim the leeks, cutting of the root and all te tough dark-green parts of the stalk. Cut the leeks in half lengthwise, then lay each half on your cutting board and slice into long, thin ribbons; wash them really well, because leeks retain a lot of grit. Put the noodles into a pan of boiling water and cook for about 5 minutes until they’re mostly tender; drain them and return them to the pan, still over heat, to let the remaining water cook out. When there’s no more water pooling in the pan, throw in the creme fraiche and toss with the leeks until it makes a viscous coating for them. Add the hazelnut oil and salt and pepper to taste, toss to distribute, and eat immediately.

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