Ffish Custard?

A single bright orange salmon roe doesn’t amount to much. But when it bursts into the mouth it dissolves into something primal - both sweet and salty - the taste of life itself. 

But imagine if the roe stayed intact. Imagine that you could barely chew it. Now imagine that chewy rubber married to dates, almond meal, milk and rosewater. If your imagination can stretch that far, you're eating ffish custard. 

I can’t remember how I came across Rare Cooking, a blog that recently featured this dish. Dreamed up by two PHD students with an interest in archival oddities, Rare Cooking chronicles their attempt to translate early American recipes into something that might actually taste good. Recently, they found a recipe for something called ffish custard, likely at least two hundred years old, and decided to whip up a batch. 

There’s a critical humility in their approach: if an old dish sounds terrible, perhaps  we’re wrong.  Is there another reason why we no longer eat it? Can early American cooking teach us "new" flavors?

There’s only one way to find out: make the dish. In the case of ffish custard this required a bit of guesswork. The recipe called for a pound of almonds, the roe of a pike, dates, milk and rose water. That’s it: mix it together, strain it, and pop it into the oven. 

To impressive result, Rare Cooking decided against the straining step. Check out their result (and the comments) here



So Brave


Paula Wolfert has always been one of my heros.  She has the best palate of anyone I've ever met, and her cookbooks are meticulously researched, beautifully written and completely reliable. I've been cooking from her books since I first discovered Couscous and other Good Food from Morocco in 1973.

But now she's doing something even more admirable: going public about the fact that she has Alzheimer's, talking about the problem, raising money for research.

She is wryly funny about the problem.  "It's great to see you," she told me last Sunday at a fundraiser in her honor in Sharon, Connecticut, "although I probably won't remember it tomorrow." 

It was a wonderful afternoon.  The event was organized by Serge Madikians of Serevan Restaurant, who catered the lunch.  This is what we ate:


Amazingly delicious smoked lamb, cooked by our host Ken Tyler.  Mr. Tyler, who is one of the world's most famous art printers (he started Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles), turns out to be as good a cook as he is a printer. "You trying to take credit for my lamb?" he asked Serge (standing to his right).


Unusually tasty coleslaw, with cauliflower, jicama, cranberries and chayote in Arakh vinegar.


Sweetly sour roasted carrots withe pomegranate and spinach.


Eggplant, mint, labenah





Sumac-sprinkled feta with local tomatoes. 

The food was fantastic. The speeches were moving. But the highlight of the day had to be the chance to wander through Ken and Marabeth Tyler's beautifully simple house, a showcase for their remarkable collection of art. Looking at a lovely little Hiroshige hanging over the bathroom sink, I had this thought: I bet Paula will remember this. 


A Better Bird

Guinea Hen

Full disclosure: this was a gift.  I ordered some steaks from DeBragga, and when I opened the box I found this guinea as well. 

It didn't look like much - a scrawny bird, feet still on, very long wings, its deep red flesh glowing through the skin.  I threw it into the refrigerator thinking, "I'll deal with you later."

Truth be told, I've never cooked a guinea hen before.  So I went onto the Debragga website, where I read this:

"The meat of the guinea fowl is similar to chicken but higher in protein, lower in fat and intensely flavorful. These guinea hens – more moist and generous than regular chicken! – are raised on Mauer Farms in Bloomville, New York, in the heart of Delaware County. As part of the Catskill Watershed Management project, these birds are raised in a way that protects them as well as the land they live on.  These fowl are fed a custom blend of grains and corn supplemented with seasonal greens.  Antibiotic- and hormone-free, they are humanely raised and handled at every step, finishing with a unique air chill process that preserves them to cook up crispy skinned and juicy every time."

Okay, I thought, I'll cook it like chicken.  And then, looking at the bird, thought I ought to do a little bit more. So I cut off the feet (saving them for soup), washed the bird inside and out, dried it well and let it sit in the refrigerator for a few hours.  Then I made a blend of mustard and butter, gingerly pried up the skin and rubbed that onto the flesh.  I preheated the oven to 400 degrees.  I put an onion into the bird's cavity, some carrots and onions into the pan, spread some butter on the bird, showered it with salt and put the pan into the oven for about 50 minutes, occasionally basting the bird.

Then I made a quick pan gravy: I added a cup of chicken stock to the juices in the bottom of the pan and boiled it down until it had thickened into a suace.  

It was, hands down, the most delicious bird I've ever cooked.  Moist. Flavorful. Completely wonderful.

Would I spend $30 for one of these birds again?  To be honest, it seems like an extravagance if it's just for us. But for a company dinner? Absolutely!  These are truly terrific birds.  






Things I Love


Hand Harvested Salt

Am I crazy?  Maybe. This salt cost $12 for 4 ounces.  But I love the way it looks skittering across the top of a fried egg - or just about anything else - and I love the way it feels in my hand.  I love the taste too - like a mouthfull of arid ocean.  

Jacobsen salt is taken straight from Oregon waters.  Which is exactly what it tastes like. One bonus: the stuff is so expensive that you end up using it very sparingly. 



Things I Love

Two Interesting New Zealand Discoveries

Why isn't anyone in America making a product like this?  What we have here is wasabi powder, made of dried and colored horseradish, which passes for the more expensive (and difficult to grow) wasabi. 

Purewasabi, produced by a former policeman (hence the name), is real wasabi root, grated and mixed with a bit of lemon juice. It's a wonderful spread for sandwiches, great mixed into mayonnaise or added to scrambled eggs.  I'm only just starting, but I'm sure I'll come up with dozens of uses for this really delicious stuff. 



I don't usually bother bringing olive oil back from a trip - it's too heavy, and the possibilities of breakage too real - but this Rangihoua stopped me cold when I tasted it on Waiheke Island, a half hour ferry ride from Auckland.  Pressed a few months ago from Picual olives, it tastes like no other oil I've encountered. People often describe Tuscan oil as peppery, but this one goes beyond that.  To me it tastes very much like watercress, with a serious bit of bite. Intriguing.  And delicious.



Two Bits of Paradise


Otahuna Lodge, just outside Christchurch, in New Zealand.  The grand Victorian, built in 1895 by Sir Heaton Rhodes, has been beautifully preserved (and is now owned by two American men). Every room is gorgeous. 

I came upstairs, after a long, luxurious dinner, to find the curtains drawn, the sheets turned down, and a fire blazing merrily in my room (this one, in fact). It made me feel like a character in a Victorian novel.


In the morning I looked outside to find sheep grazing, the daffodils just coming into bloom.


Should you arrive in time for a late lunch and ask for something simple - say a little salad - this is what you are likely to get:


with just-baked bread and that amazing New Zealand butter. IMG_4345


An hour north is the Waipara Valley, where they're growing incredible grapes, making fantastic wine. In the States the wine we get from New Zealand are mostly Sauvignon Blancs - and they're impressive. But I've become extremely attached to the Chardonnays I've been drinking here, and the Pinot Noirs.


One of the best afternoons I spent in New Zealand was at Black Estate, where you sit in an understated room, overlooking vineyards, mountains in the background, and eating the most delicious food. There's a pleasantly casual air about the place that makes it feel not like a restaurant, but the home of a really good cook who's invited you for a leisurely lunch. We started with this plate of charcuterie:


And this smoked New Zealand salmon served with seaweed-flecked bread.


And this irresistible little pot of pork rillettes:


Pie is very big in New Zealand, and this duck and leek pie was the best I've had here. Two days later I am still thinking about it.


There was also great gurnard (a firm-fleshed fish) in a sauce lightly laced with Pernod, sitting on a pile of mashed potatoes and celery root, surrounded by Brussels sprouts.


Truth to tell, I ate everything on the menu, which included these fantastic noodles in a gingery broth with beef that simply melted when you put it in your mouth:


a salad of foraged greens:


and this rich cheese tart made with aged Gouda (a great many Dutch people ended up in New Zealand, so they do extremely nice things with Dutch cheeses) and leeks. 


And finally this dense, rich, thick chocolate tart - with creme fraiche.


A note on the wines: I loved all the Black Estate wines I tried, but I'm especially partial to the Netherwood Chardonnay which made me think about Chablis.  It has a fresh mineral quality that tells you there's a lot of limestone in the soil, but what I like best is that each sip reminds you of the clean, invigorating New Zealand air.

Black Estate is - as they say in France - worth a detour. 



Notes from New Zealand: Christchurch

Christchurch is heartbreaking and inspiring, in equal measure. New Zealand's second largest city is still recovering from the devastating earthquake of 2011.  Huge swaths of the city have disappeared leaving gaping hulks of vanished buildings standing on every street like ghosts from the past. You walk the streets, haunted by the rubble of tumbled buildings.

And yet there is a spirit of revival here. A cathedral made of cardboard. Shops inside containers. Restaurants in trucks or tucked inside tiny reclaimed spaces.  I walk the city, wandering in and out of places, awed by so much that I see.

And the food!

My first meal is at Shop Eight, where chef Alex Davies is cooking eloquent fare on a couple of burners in a kitchen the size of a postage stamp.  He has no oven. The furniture is made from recycled wood. The flowers on the table are wild, plucked from now abandoned gardens, tucked into jaunty jars. The products - even the wines - are all local. I loved absolutely everything I ate, from bread served simply with a berry vinaigrette to a fantastic plate of local cheeses.

This was my favorite dish:


Terakihi, a New Zealand fish, with the meatiest, fattest, most delicious shiitake mushrooms I've ever experienced, and a single pungent leaf of kale.  The great joy here was the broth: intense, singing the praises of every vegetable that went swimming through it.


Those radishes are fried in duck fat, the chicken liver hearts are just-cooked, and the pate is rustic, gutsy, completely appealing.


Pig head ramen.  Need I say more? Alex gets a pighead every week, fashioning various delicious dishes from the meat. 


Have you ever seen a more appealing plate of cheeses? The one on the right is a local sheep cheese, the one in the middle is Mt. Grey Barnes Blue, and the one on the left was rich, soft and delightfully barny. The jelly is made from loquats.

The cheeses come from Canterbury Cheese Mongers, where Sarah and Martin Aspinwall are baking fantastic sourdough bread and encouraging (and affining) the products of local cheeesemakers. (That's Sarah.)


 Lunch one day is at the fabulously named King of Snake.  We start with the equally well-titled hairy oysters - wrapped in kataifi, slathered with spicy mayo, a crisp briny mouthful.


 Then there are these tuatua - meaty local surf clams haunted by a powerful XO sauce.


And chili prawns - sweet, spicy, extremely sexy.



But the restaurant that most exemplifies the spirit here has to be the just-opened Brick Farm, set in an almost vacant lot. Johnny Moore, whose beloved Smash Palace is a boisterous bar and burger place housed in a truck, has reclaimed a bit of land next to the farmers market downtown. The three story-building sits alone on an otherwise desserted downtown block.  It's a handsome space, all brick, wood and sunlight, filled with charming details. An antique cash registers sits on the counter, guarding platters of pastry.  Huge slabs of wood are used as plates. Outside, planters create a small urban farm. Inside, locals gather for brunch on weekend mornings, for raucous bistro food at night.


Places like this are turning the new Christchurch into a city filled with possibility. After the earthquake people here were eager to go out to eat, reconnect with their neighbors, prove that their city was still alive. Restaurateurs stepped in, opening in the midst of devastation, offering hope.  

Up next: visiting Paradise. A trip to the country around Christchurch (and lots of terrific wine).


A Japanese meal in New Zealand


My last dinner in Auckland was at the tranquil Cocoro: a lovely, langorous meal that was utterly Japanese in its restrained simplicity.

It began with these two oysters: one a Bluff oyster, too delicious to serve with anything more than a bit of salt and lemon. The other a Kaipara topped with a subtle yuzu foam.


Next came a little box that opened to reveal a series of small treats: the tuna at the top, velvety curls of raw shrimp,  a sharkskin grater with fresh wasabi and a bit of pickled ginger. At the bottom, both white and dark soy sauce.IMG_4324

Now there was seaweed-cured snapper wrapped around a nugget of grilled eggplant, topped with a frisk of turnip and served in a puree made from more grilled eggplant.



Next there was a tiny dish of chawanmushi filled with scallop and crab, and topped with salmon roe:


Kingfish and fiddlehead fern tempura came plunked into a broth rich with seaweed and spinach. The real treat here - for me at least - was the buckwheat and spinach at the bottom. The entire world in a bowl- ocean, forest, field and stream.   


Beautifully grilled beef, very rare, surrounded by shiitakes, truffle, Jerusalem artichoke puree and just a tiny hint of bitter greens.


Dessert was simple and completely refreshing: granita of umeboshi and shiso, with bits of berries and a strong hint of yuzu.  A perfect ending for a lovely meal.




Notes from New Zealand: Auckland


This is such a beautiful city, perched on the water, the air fresh, green volcanos everywhere you look. Some lucky people take the ferry in from Waiheke Island, commuting in to work with orcas frisking around the boat, leaping, diving.  Others live in wonderful Victorian homes, perched on hills, views of water on all sides. 

Life here seems casual, easy. First night in town I am whisked off to Depot, the most rollicking, raucuous restaurant, where genial Al Brown plies me with wonderful wines and fantastic food. Almost before we're seated platters of oysters arrive.



New Zealand oysters are not like those of other waters: they’re brinier, meatier. We have Tio Points, with their steely character, creamy Mahurangis and the Te Matukus which are both sweet, salty and creamy. (My favorites are Bluff Oysters, which are just going out of season; they have a crisp character, a bit like the texture of giant clam, and I'm ecstatic each time I encounter one.)


There are clam fritters - I can’t stop eating them - and spicy lamb ribs, big meaty things with potent skordalia, and the kinds of salads not meant for dainty dieters. This is big food, for big eaters; you are meant to have fun.  And finally we eat pastrami from Al’s other place - Federal Deli - which actually gives classic New York delis a run for their money.


I’m amazed to come halfway around the world and find this written on a wall.  But did I say this?  I can’t remember when.


Lunch the next day is at Soul Bar. Overlooking the water, it's filled with extremely chic people giving each other the eye. This is a grown up restaurant, running smooth as silk.  You sit down, relax, instantly knowing you're in good hands. The food - as you can plainly see from the king fish above and the tuna below - is beautiful.  It is also impeccably prepared.  Every one of these dishes tasted even better than it looks.




The fish and scampi were delicious, but it's the pastas that really impressed me.  Pumpkin agnolotti were filled with roasted pumpkin, bathed in brown butter and edged with curls of  ricotta salata and fried sage.  It's a classic dish, but I've never had a better version.


 I love these plump, floppy little ravioli too.  They're filled with goat cheese that's been sparked with orange peel and topped with grilled scallions and various permutations of peas. Simple. Elegant. Delicious.


And this: scampi with brussels sprouts. Underneath, sheer sheets of pasta.  Over it all, a rich shrimp bisque. Sweet, sour, soft, chewy: a serious mouthful.


Here even a simple dish of broccolini comes spiked with smoked chili, underlined with preserved lemon, embraced by garlic until its rough edges have been muted. 

Breakfast in Auckland isn't your usual fare either. While people in the rest of the world are starting the day with toast, with cereal, with porridge or pastries, Aucklandites have different ideas. At the lovely little Ortolana people are tucking into far more interesting food. Mushrooms, poached egg, scattered cheese, greens.


And this: gnocchi, cheese, eggs, peas and an entire garden of spring greens.  It's as if Auckland is saying - the world is filled with so many wonderful things to eat.  Why limit the options?


 And then there is the Japanese food.  Stay tuned.....









Pickled Purple Daikon


The day before I left for Australia, I found a beautiful purple daikon radish at the farmer’s market. 

I didn’t have time to eat it before I left. So I did the obvious thing: made it into pickles. 

For the first few hours, the radish’s incredible purple tie-die color lasted.  But eventually it gave way to the pickling liquid, and the vinegar turned everything a brilliant beetish purple. Less startling - but still incredibly lovely. 

Pickled Daikon

1 large purple daikon radish, sliced

3/4 cup water 

1 1/4 cup unseasoned rice vinegar

splash soy sauce

1/4 cup sugar

1 teaspoon salt

thumb-sized piece of ginger, smashed with back of a spoon

dried chile

Black peppercorns

Coriander seeds

Warm the liquids with the sugar and salt in a small nonreactive pot, just until the sugar dissolves.

Put the thinly-sliced daikon and ginger into a pretty bowl along with the chile, peppercorns and coriander seeds. Allow to cool to room temperature and then refrigerate.

I imagine that this will be good for about two weeks - but we'll see when I get back from New Zealand. 


About this journal
Where am I eating? What's for dinner tonight? And what books have I been reading? For a look at what's going on in my life lately, take a look at this journal, which I try to update on a regular basis.