A couple years ago I was given a great honor. After a bit of slight competition behind the line It was decided I would run the saute station. Typically saute stations are the most arduous job a restaurant can offer in the way of cookery, depending on the type of cuisine they may involve many different preparations, and can necessitate that you have a deep understanding of many different techniques.
The saute station I was to run was more intense than any other I had come across, it was comprised of 3 courses off of two different tasting menus, 4 side dishes, and three additional entrees. This doesn’t sound too crazy when compared to other restaurant stations, but when you throw into the mix daily menu changes, and that it is your job to choose which components should go together, it became quite intimidating.
The biggest, and most exciting challenge though, are the tasting menus. Diners have their choice of a number of different a la carte options which can be ordered individually, but for the curious and intrepid, there are two different 3 course tasting menus, one featuring meat, the other featuring vegetables. The first course of the meat menu was the most fun for me to create, a light portion of food, often an outlet for special little odds and ends. The tastings are almost the heart of the restaurant’s menu. For the service staff, selling a tasting menu is a bit like saying:
“Here is the restaurant you have come to, summed up in a couple courses, enjoy”.
Given that, it can be stressful cooking with that knowledge, feeling like the weight of a restaurant is hovering over your shoulders. I was never instructed that the tasting menus need to be the showiest thing on the menu, or the most expensive (speaking food cost wise- as in how much it costs a restaurant to produce). Somehow, I always felt that they needed to be though. I felt like if I were getting a tasting menu, I would want it to be special. Tasting menus are not really where the money is for restaurants, I would say it is more in the area of a la carte proteins, and liquor especially. It is a bit of a showcase of what a restaurant has though, and I have always tried to do what I can to make them particularly interesting, creative, and poignant.
This past month I was given another honor, It was decided that I would be the photographer to shoot a cookbook. Something had fallen through with the other photographer, and I had a few samples in my camera of stuff I had been shooting that I liked. I was dying to show the samples to someone, anyone, and I jumped at the chance. After we sent a couple of my favorite shots to the editor, she gave us the thumbs up. unfortunately after I had done plenty of shooting, using up valuable resources and time, they said that my work wasn’t exactly what they wanted. Oh well.
What I’m leading to here is a fun moment I had the other day. I had been coordinating a coworker to gather some meat for various recipes. I ended up running out of time and decided I would just take some of the ingredients I had prepped home and shoot the rest of the recipes in the morning. The following morning before work, as I prepped the couple dishes I would shoot, I remembered a rabbit dish I had shot the other day. It was colorful, with carrots, peas, and fiddlehead ferns, a dish evocative of spring if there ever was one. I had a sequence of thoughts that went something like this:
Wow, it sure was fun making that spring rabbit dish the other day…
I wish I could make a spring dish…
I HAVE to make a spring dish right now…
In that moment I just kind of stopped what I was doing and started to make something new. It was a plate that I thought would be perfect for the first course of our meat menu in the coming weeks, when we are fully entwined with our Minnesota winter, and most green vegetables are gone.
In other restaurants, when you run out of asparagus, or another seasonal vegetable, you call up a purveyor and ask nicely for some more. In the world that I currently live in, no such courtesies are allowed us. When the ramps are gone, they are gone, as well as the asparagus and fiddles. Given this, we try to order as much as possible in giant bulk, so that we may preserve and pickle what we can, knowing we will not see another flush of food so green for another year.
Sometimes I find this happens to me, dishes will appear in my mind out of nowhere, sometimes if I act quickly I can write them down for the future, for me its a bit like capturing little jewels of inspiration, although most of the time I just forget them. This time was easy though, I had everything at my fingertips downstairs amongst my wall of preserves.
What I saw in my mind looked like a glimpse of the intense green of spring, but different. I wanted to show spring food, but wanted it to be seen through the lens of winter. It would be a nod to my coworkers and our longing for edible green things after a couple cold months, but also an acknowledgement of where we are right now: frozen Minnesota.
Rainbow Trout With Preserved Spring Vegetables
Serves 2 as an appetizer/or a light course of a tasting menu
Prep Time: 5 minutes Cook Time: 5 minutes
Note: If you wanted to make this an entree, serve a full filet of trout for each person, or substitute another fish, 5-6 oz is plenty for dinner, also increase the quantity of vegetables to your liking. If you want to make a more filling entree, you might add some sauteed potatoes or accompany with a little bowl of wild or regular rice.
- 1 filet of rainbow trout or other small fish, cut into two equal size pieces
- 8-10 pickled fiddlehead ferns, depending on size (recipe here)
- 6 or so pickled morels (recipe here)
- A few pickled spruce tips (recipe here)
- A few wild capers, like dandelions (recipe here)
- One large pickled ramp bulb, sliced paper thin into coins (pickled ramp recipe here)
- 2 tbsp stinging nettle-ramp puree (recipe follows)
- Fresh herbs, such as flat leaf parsley, to garnish
- Buckwheat or other flour to dredge the trout
- Flavorless cooking oil, such as grapeseed, for cooking the trout
- Kosher salt and pepper
First prepare the nettle and ramp puree
Stinging Nettle-Ramp Leaf Puree
We have used this in the past as a wonderful garnish for a small plate of fish, it can also be used to create green nettle pasta, or a dollop can beautifully garnish a white soup, such as one made from onions or potato
Yield: 1 cup
- Equal parts nettles and ramp greens, blanched for a couple seconds in boiling salted water to wilt, then refreshed in ice water to retain their green color. Not using at least a cup may be tricky to execute in a home blender, you need a decent amount of stuff for the blades to do their job.
- 1 tbsp grapeseed oil, or another oil. Here you could use some nicely flavored olive oil, like extra virgin, since it will not be cooked. The purpose of the oil is to facilitate the pureeing in the blender.
- Drain the blanched greens, and squeeze out excess water. You will need 1 full cup of packed, blanched nettles and ramps. Chop the blanched nettles and ramp greens roughly, then add to the bowl of the blender and pulse to break them up a bit. Slowly move up the power settings until you reach maximum, adding the oil to ensure a smooth puree. After the addition of the oil, the puree should lighten in color a bit and get fluffy and smooth. If it still looks chunky after a minute, add a little more oil until it looks smooth, like baby food.
- When you have a nice, smooth puree, season it to taste with salt and pepper and then reserve. This puree can also be frozen in a plastic bag for future use for a long time,.
Plating the Trout dish
- After the puree is made, all you have to do is open up some pickle jars you have made over the course of the year and drain them on paper towels to remove excess pickling liquid they may weep. After the pickles are drained, dress them with a bit of oil and salt, then reserve.
- To cook the rainbow trout, season the rainbow trout filets lightly with salt and pepper, then dredge the trout filets in buckwheat flour if using and add to a hot, oiled saute pan, skin side down.
- Place a tablespoon of puree on each plate and spread it out with a small offset spatula
- Cook the trout for 2-3 minutes until the skin is golden and crisp, flip momentarily to kiss the flesh side of the fish and remove the “rawness” of the flour on the flesh side. Drain the trout filets on paper towels to absorb any excess oil, add the salad to the plate, and serve.
- I have plated the dish for this picture in a way that makes all the individual components visible on purpose. It is perfectly fine to toss the pickles together as a salad and spoon them on the plate, placing the trout on top.
- Consuming a dish consisting of a variety of pickles may seem odd for some. Pickles typically taste quite strongly of vinegar. The pickle recipes I like to use do not contain as much vinegar or spices as many other recipes you might find. This is because I want them to be blank canvases, I want my pickled fiddleheads to taste like fiddleheads, not a whole bunch of spices. When using simple pickling recipes that are a bit lighter on the vinegar, but still well within the safe PH guidelines (<4.2 I say is perfectly safe) you can almost just add the pickles to a dish like you would their raw version, although they need less cooking.