Sometimes inspiration hits you on the head like a coconut falling from a tree. Other times, it’s more subtle, like a thicket of nettles hiding in the underbrush, or a scarlet box of strawberries at the farmers market. Then there are the times that the route is so circuitous, anything short of a full explanation would leave most scratching their heads wondering what illicit substances I’ve been smoking.
Take this dish for example. It started out with a bunch of macarons and a knub of fresh wasabi. Claire from Colloquial Cooking and Stéphane from Zen Can Cook came over this past weekend and made some Wasabi and Grapefruit Macarons from Pierre Hermé’s tome on macarons. I’d always associated wasabi with sushi and sashimi and it had never really occurred to me to use it in any other context, let alone in a dessert with grapefruit! I was skeptical to say the least, but true to his reputation, the macarons were incredible. They were so good, I nearly pranced down the halls of my building singing their praises like a giddy schoolgirl.
Best of all, Claire and Stéphane left me the other half of the wasabi making me promise them I’d make something tasty with it. Naturally, the first thing I started thinking about was how I could apply monsieur Hermé’s concepts without outright plagiarizing his dessert. So I kept taking bites of wasabi and throwing out ideas. A train of thought that went something like this….
“Oooo-eeee that burns…. maybe it would go with other kinds of citrus….(eyes tearing up)….OH like bergamot….yea earl grey tea could work…..Eeeee my sinuses are melting…. oh and I bet tomatoes would taste great with it…..and if wasabi and peas go together, why not corn….okay i better stop eating this before I loose my sense of smell.”
Sinuses cleared, I had the seeds of some ideas that grew into bigger ideas like earl grey and wasabi ice cream, wasabi gazpacho, and corn and wasabi souffle. Then the other day, I was gifted a loaf of spent wheat bread which was enjoyed with honey and cheese for several days before it started going stale.
Suddenly things started to coalesce. The bread could be turned into panzanella with a wasabi dressing, to which I could add some raw fresh corn and tomatoes. For color and a vibrant earthiness, I could mince up some mitsuba which has a nice cedar-like fragrance. I also happened to pick up some gorgeous halibut fillets on sale at Wholefoods which I figured would go great with the panzanella and bring the wasabi full circle back to the realm of seafood.
I still didn’t have the bergamot flavour in there though and I tried to think about how I could work that in. Could I marinate the fish in tea? Maybe I could I toss in some spent tea leaves, Burmese style? That’s around when it occurred to me that potatoes would make the perfect vessel for carrying the bergamot flavour.
While they were cooking, the earthiness of the potatoes mixed with the citrusy earl grey and filled the apartment with a wonderful aroma that made me want to grab a fork and eat them straight out of the pot with butter. By letting them steep in the tea overnight, they take on a striking auburn color that makes them as pleasing to look at as they are to eat.
You’ll only need one potato for this recipe, so you could turn the rest into a potato salad, or reheat them and have them with some butter, you could even cut them up and fry them in a bit of duck fat.
So how was the dish as whole? Everything from the fish that was crisp on the outside and moist and and tender on the inside to the nuanced panzanella to the earl grey potatoes it contained worked together better than expected. It was one of those things where each flavour and texture harmonized to make the whole better than the sum of its parts.
The best part was that aside from the potatoes, the rest of it took almost no time at all to prepare.
Crispy Halibut with Wasabi Panzanella and Earl Grey Potatoes
for earl grey potatoes
4 whole unpeeled yukon gold potatoes
earl grey tea
1 C dense wheat bread cut into 1/4″ cubes
1 earl grey potato cut into 1/4″ cubes
1/4 C chopped cherry tomatoes
1 ear fresh sweet corn kernels removed
2 Tbs mitsuba minced
1 1/2 Tbs freshly grated wasabi (half if you use the kind from the tube)
2 Tbs olive oil
1 Tbs yuzu juice
1/4 tsp salt
1/8 tsp honey
2 pieces of halibut
A day before you plan to make this, put the whole potatoes in a pot just big enough to hold all 4 and cover with water. Liberally salt the water then add about 2 tablespoons of earl grey tea. Bring to a boil and check the color of the water, it should be a dark brown color, if it isn’t add more tea. Turn the heat down to maintain a gentle simmer then cook until you can just pass a fork into the center of a potato. Turn off the heat and let the potatoes cool in the liquid, then refrigerate overnight.
To start the panzanella, toss the bread cubes in 1 tablespoon of olive oil and some black pepper. Spread on a baking sheet in one layer and put into a 300 degree oven until the cubes are golden brown and crisp. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. In a medium bowl, add the chopped earl grey potato, tomato, corn, and mitsuba.
For the dressing, whisk all the ingredients together. The wasabi starts loosing its potency as soon as it’s grated, so make sure you submerge it in the oil and yuzu juice quickly.
For the halibut, start heating a cast iron skillet over medium heat while you prep the fish so it gets very very hot. Rub all sides of the fillets with paper towels to remove as much moisture as possible. It’s important that you get it as dry as possible to get it to crisp on the outside. When the pan is hot add a 2 tablespoons of a high smoke point oil to the pan then sprinkle just the skin side of the halibut with salt and white pepper. Put the fillets skin-side down into the pan and fry undisturbed until it is opaque half way up the fillets and they easily come off the pan. Use paper towels to carefully dry the non-skin surface of the halibut (be careful, the oil will sputter), then salt and pepper this side. Flip the halibut and continue to fry until it’s golden brown on the flesh side and cooked through (about half as much time as you cooked it on the skin side). Transfer the fillets to a plate while you finish the panzanella.
To finish the panzanella, add the bread cubes and dressing to the bowl of vegetables and toss to coat everything with the dressing. Put down a layer of panzanella onto a plate then top with a halibut fillet.