Since I only get to cook [at most] 2-3 times a week, I keep a 'to-do' list of things to cook. This is helpful because I often think of a million things to cook when I don't have the opportunity to, and nothing when I can. Still, there are times when the list is running low, or the items there just aren't as cool as I thought they were when I wrote them down. For these times when I'm in a creative funk, I count on someone else to propose a cooking challenge.
This time, SheSimmers and the dreamy Curtis Duffy, chef de cuisine of Avenues, saved my derriere. The challenge is to create a multi-element entree using fish, chocolate, fennel (all parts), and mushrooms.
Loyalists should recall that I hate cooking fish. I've maybe done it five times in my life--it just isn't for me. Add the hassle of putting chocolate in a savory dish, and I came pretty close to passing on this opportunity. Of course, I'm very stubborn, and opting out was never an option.
My first thought was to do a fish crudo, so I could avoid the whole cooking thing. Garnish with pickled fennel, cocoa nibs, and porcini air, and it could possibly be pretty cool. Unfortunately, this is more of an appetizer than entree so I nixed the thought. I'm keeping the porcini air idea (add soy lecithin to liquid left from reconstituting dried porcinis, emulsify) in my backpocket though, because I think it would be interesting to make an earthy product a light, airy one.
I realize I'm going to have to pan roast a fish whether I want to or not, so I pick out an inch thick piece of halibut, which will be a good canvas for everything else I come up with, and have good textural integrity (ie forgiving to my crude technique). The final issue is making everything else work together.
I figure my acid component is going to be everyone's common friend. Fish love citrus. Fennel loves orange. Chocolate is friendly with orange. And mushrooms, which I plan to do a conservas (Spanish style confit) of, need an acid to really blossom (usually use sherry vinegar).
The first step in making the dish is making the mushroom conserva and orange pickled fennel, as these have a lot of inactive cooking time. For the conserva, get a pound of wild mushrooms--Chicagoans, this would be a great time to go visit the Green City Market and get the mushroom grab bag--or shiitakes, and even criminis--clean, and cover in good Spanish olive oil, about 2 cups-ish. Just don't waste time and good oil on those white button things. Put in a preheated 225 Dg oven for 90 minutes. Garlic and other flavoring agents can go in as well, but I'm avoiding those for the dish's focus' sake. Once time is up, pull the dish out of the oven, and add a few sprigs of thyme--if done right, neighbors should start to get scent envy. Once the temperature comes down, finish with sherry vinegar, or in this case orange/pickling liquid, and serve.
I'm pickling the fennel because it's a delicious preparation, pickling will incorporate my [orange] acid component that brings the dish together, and it will make use of the entire plant (a challenge requirement). There are a lot of different ways to execute, but I'm going to do a quick pickle in the same style I do Escabeche de Cebolla. Slice the fennel (I tend to make slices thicker than your average pickler and undercook, as I like my pickles to have structural integrity and crunch) and place in a pot. Cover with the juice of two oranges, and a healthy pour of white vinegar. Add basic seasoning and cover with water. Bring to a boil and then take off the heat after 5 minutes. Cool.
Finally, pan roast the halibut. Put several tablespoons of mushroom oil (from the conserva) in a pan on medium-high heat. I like there to be extra oil so I can tilt the pan and baste the fish in it as it cooks--but that's just me. While the pan is preheating, season the halibut on both sides. Once the oil is shimmering, put the halibut in skin side down. Once that side decides it's done cooking, it will cease to stick to the pan, and allow itself to be flipped. Cook for a few minutes, basting the top with the mushroom oil, then finish in a 400 Dg oven. The oven isn't necessary for thin filets, but halibut is a 'steaky' fish, and this cut is an inch thick. Besides, it isn't pan roasting if we don't put it in the oven.
Make a bed of the mushroom conserva, then make the halibut comfy on top. Garnish with the orange pickled fennel, fennel frawn, and cocoa nibs. Be sure that some pickling liquid gets on the mushrooms. Orange zest would probably look pretty cool on top as well. Devour the bright, crunchy fennel with bitter cocoa nibs on top the crispy skin of a [fingers crossed] perfectly cooked, moist halibut accompanied by earthy, tender mushrooms. Not bad for a first take.