Monday, March 21, 2011

Vacation Rental Kitchen Challenge

What is this? A blog post from vacation? Yes!

happy hour spread by the pool

Because even a crappily appointed vacation rental kitchen (but otherwise lovely rental home) can't keep me from a delicious homemade meal.

And since it's cold and crappy out today, I can take time away from the pool to write about it. A win-win. Sort of.

I generally love reading magazines (I may have mentioned this before) but I am not a fan of People, Star, USWeekly, etc. Instead my subscription list is more along the lines of: Vogue, Vanity Fair, Elle Decor, House Beautiful, Food & Wine, and Bon Appetit. Oh, and The Economist, but that's like the magazine equivalent of eating a giant bowl of Fiber One cereal.

It is common knowledge among the readers of House Beautiful magazine that their longtime food editor Ina Garten has decided to spread her fresh-food-with-lots-of-butter-and-olive-oil gospel elsewhere and Tyler Florence has taken her place. Don't get me wrong. I'm a fan of Ina's, but I do think she's a bit heavy-handed with the fats. I also feel she was reusing a lot of her already-published recipes for her HB articles and because I own several of her cookbooks, it was obvious and rather disappointing. On the other hand, I don't own any Tyler Florence cookbooks, so each month I'm presented with a new (to me, at least) recipe.

This month was no exception, and as I sat by the pool over the weekend reading from my stack of glossies, I ran across a Tyler recipe which looked absolutely delicious. And surprisingly do-able in our ill-equipped kitchen. It's not on the HB site yet but I'm sure it will be next month. In the meantime, here it is, with my notes and modifications.

Yes, you can make delicious food in a vacation rental kitchen. Also, note the silverware in this shot. That's my (grandmother's) pattern! Makes me want to polish it all to get it nice and shiny like it is here.

Pan-Roasted Alaskan Salmon and Morels with Spring Pea Risotto and Early Mint
Serves 4


Sea salt and pepper
3 tablespoons grapeseed oil
  • Yeah, right. I love using grapeseed oil at home for high heat sauteing and searing, but we were not buying another bottle of oil here on vacay. We used olive oil and just dealt with the smoke. It was fine.
1 pound wild Alaskan salmon fillet, skin removed, cut into four portions, bones removed
  • The only salmon at the "good" grocery store here in the desert was farmed so instead we got fresh-never-frozen halibut which was quite good, if leaner and milder in flavor than salmon would have been.
1/4 pound whole fresh morel mushrooms, soaked in cool water to remove any grit
  • Again, fresh morels were not exactly available so we - and by "we" I mean "Mom" - forked over $15 for HALF an ounce of dried morels, which we reconstituted in about 3/4 cup of boiling water. She's taking the rest of the bag of morels back to Chicago with her.

4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
4 cups organic chicken stock
  • For this, we just used Swanson Natural Goodness broth which is low sodium and tastes ok. I would avoid the prepackaged organic chicken stock/broth by Pacific, Kitchen Basics, or any other brand on the shelf. In my experience the organic brands taste rather bad. Whole Foods brand is ok. The most important thing is to get the low sodium stuff.
1 cup frozen baby peas
  • Next time I'd add two cups to the recipe, more on that later.
My new camera takes much better pictures than the old one.
Hooray for improvements in technology.

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium shallot, finely chopped
1 cup uncooked arborio rice
1/4 dry white wine
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • I only used one tablespoon since we had a full cup of cheese (!) in this
1 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
  • I bought this pre-grated at the deli - please do not get that Kraft shaker stuff!! - since I was unsure if we had a grater back at the house and didn't think to check before we left. Turns out there are three graters. Odd.
3 tablespoons fresh baby mint leaves
  • I don't know about "baby" mint but we bought regular mint - seemed fine.

Before we begin, a note: I think it is so very odd that Tyler has you begin with the fish and not the risotto. I read the recipe and thought that was crazy since the risotto takes twice as long as the fish. So, if you make this, I'd skip step 2 and go right to step 3 and then once you've added the second cup of broth to the risotto, get going on the fish. That's what I did and the timing was perfect.

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

2. Season salmon (or, in our case, halibut) fillets with sea salt and pepper. In a large saute pan, heat grapeseed (ahem, olive) oil over high heat until shimmering. Sear the salmon for two to three minutes on just one side. 

Searing the halibut. I was surprised that the fish actually formed a brown crust on the bottom - exactly what I was looking for. I think the trick here is to blot the fish as dry as possible with paper towels before seasoning.

Add the morels, thyme, and lemon juice. Place pan in the oven and cook 10 minutes, or until the salmon is crispy on the outside and tender on the inside.

I was not confident that the frying pan could go in a hot oven, given its flimsy plastic handle and thin nonstick coating. Once the fish was seared, I transferred it to a baking pan that I knew could handle the oven's heat added the other ingredients as directed.
P.S. This is just one of the many reasons it's worth it to invest in a good stainless steel skillet.
Unless you are buying pots and pans for a vacation rental, of course.
3. In a large pot,

(Ok, I don't know why Tyler has you using a large pot for this. A large pot is crazy. A two-quart pot is fine; all you have is a quart of broth and a cup of peas to heat. Maybe Tyler has BIG peas...)

add the chicken stock and bring to a boil over medium-high heat (or high heat, if your stove is normal rather than professional). Reduce the heat and add the peas and cook for one or two minutes until bright in color. With a strainer, remove the peas from the stock and keep the stock at a simmer. (Covering it on a back burner on low, so it doesn't evaporate, is a good idea.)

Lacking an actual strainer, the slotted spoon made somewhat tedious work of the pea straining task.
   In a blender, puree half the peas until smooth and set aside.

This blender makes it easy to "visualize whirled peas." Ha ha ha.
Yes, I did read that on a bumper sticker once. Yes, I am nerdily excited to type it here.

I had to add some broth to the peas to get them to blend nicely. I then put them in the same container as the cooked, strained peas since they are all getting added to the risotto at the same time. Fewer dishes to clean!

4. In a large, deep pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat until shimmering. Add the shallot and cook, stirring for one minute. Add the rice and cook, stirring for three to five minutes until the rice has darkened slightly and has a nutty aroma. Stir in the white wine. 

5. Gradually add the reserved stock, one cup at a time, stirring frequently until all the liquid has been absorbed before adding more stock.

As you can see, my straining job was imperfect and a few errant peas remained in the broth.
In a slight variation from the recipe directions, I recommend starting the risotto with one cup of broth at a time but after 2-3 cups are added and the risotto is thickening, add broth by the half cupful rather than the cupful for the last couple of batches.

I strained the morel-infused water and added it to the stock. Please note the iodized salt in the background - the horror! Next time I will bring my own kosher salt. It's hard to get a pinch of this fine-grained stuff, and it really does have a different (not good) flavor.
Stir until smooth. Fold in both the pureed and whole peas, butter, and cheese. Season with salt and pepper and stir well until blended.
Honestly, adding a cup of parmesan to anything makes it taste amazing. I was a little disappointed at this stage that my risotto wasn't as green as Tyler's was in the magazine photo. Next time I think I'll double the peas and reduce the parmesan to 3/4 cup.
6. Serve the risotto topped with the salmon fillet and morels and garnished with the mint leaves. Serve immediately.  

Mom also sauteed up some spinach and made a nice green salad, because we like to eat our veggies.

Love this "action shot" of mom's hand and the tongs. That lady moves quickly!

Then I got a little fancy with the plating. During which, I absolutely forgot to put the mint on. Oh well.

There were no leftovers after everyone went back for seconds. I'd call that a vacation rental kitchen success!


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