This week on Top Chef Boston, the cheftestants were split up into teams and asked to whip up a dish using ingredients contained inside of a mystery box. Last week, when I attempted to replicate Gregory’s Haitian Chicken, the challenge was finding a similar recipe and selecting an appropriate chili pepper. With three people on a team, the dishes were broken up into different components that each person was responsible for. This created a different kind of challenge- replicating the dish was more about using different techniques than finding one cohesive recipe. Even though the winning dish was surf and turf, I once against decided to make the runner up dish. For this week’s challenge, I chose to attempt Mei Lin, Katie Weinner, and Katsuji Tanabe’s halibut, pickled rhubarb, cherry, and grilled fennel slaw- with mixed results.
Positive results with pickled rhubarb and fennel slaw
I immediately ran into a problem procuring all of the appropriate ingredients. Top Chef Boston began filming in June- which is solidly in the middle of cherry, rhubarb, and halibut season. I was still able to find rhubarb at the grocery, but I missed the boat on both cherries and halibut. Have you ever tried buying cherries in October? You can’t. Also, halibut was no where to be found. So that threw a wrinkle into my plans, and was one of the reasons my dish didn’t come out exactly as hoped.
I’ll start out with the techniques that worked. My quick rhubarb pickles were easy to make, and didn’t taste nearly as sour as I had feared. This is only the second time I have worked with rhubarb- the first time I made a compote to go with pork tenderloin. I get the feeling most Americans don’t cook with rhubarb either, since the grocery store clerk had to ask for the rhubarb code, and told me they don’t sell rhubarb often. I kind of get why- rhubarb basically looks like celery; it’s stringy, and other than being a type of pie, it isn’t featured on many restaurant menus. I don’t think many people are exposed to rhubarb, which leads it to be underutilized. I say, let’s start a rhubarb revolution! Rhubarb pickles are tart and sweet, and could be used in any number of ways. One stalk made a whole jar full.
For the fennel slaw I used Epicurious’s recipe as a rough guide. In retrospect, I would use far less vinegar- probably more like a few tablespoons instead of half a cup. Toasting the anise and fennel seeds is an extra step but it is definitely worth it, plus it will make your kitchen smell divine. To keep it close to the Top Chef dish, I left out the carrots, onion, and cabbage, and rather added the pickled rhubarb to the fennel slaw and dressing. Since I wasn’t able to get cherries, I threw some raisins into the mix instead, to provide the same sweet element.
A gourmet sauce is not as simple as it appears
With a good looking fennel slaw finished, things started to go awry when it was time to figure out Katsuji Tanube’s coconut pea puree. On the show, he described wanting to make a guacamole type sauce- with fish sauce. And peas. And coconut milk apparently. I can understand why Mei was skeptical at first. Last week, Katsuji proved that he enjoys complicated recipes with a million ingredients. I don’t know what his secret ingredient was, but mine sure didn’t have it. I pureed peas, avocado, lime, coconut milk, fish sauce and salt together. It wasn’t….bad. It just didn’t really taste like much of anything. It most definitely wasn’t the “delicious” sauce that the Top Chef judges enjoyed. Maybe it needed mint? More lime? Fewer peas? I don’t know. My combination definitely needs some tinkering.
Substituting cod for halibut might not have been the best choice either. Cod is a flaky fish, and it more or less disintegrated in the pan. Halibut is more meaty, and I think it would have stood up to a thick pea puree better than cod.
In the end, I learned a lot. Pickled rhubarb? Good. Fennel slaw? Nice idea for a side dish. Substituting cod for halibut? Not the best of ideas. Pea puree with avocado, fish sauce, and coconut milk? Maybe better left to the professionals. I should just pack my knives and go. Better luck next week.