- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 2, 2005

In the process of defining his or her own cuisine, every chef sets rules. In 1975, when I was the new chef at Ma Maison in Los Angeles, one of my main rules was that we had to buy only the freshest and finest ingredients. This was, after all, the early years of the new California cuisine, and everyone was beginning to place a premium on seasonality and quality.

My rule almost immediately led to a problem involving one of the most frequent lunchtime requests: salade Nicoise. The popular main-course salad from the south of France features a medley of fresh vegetables and hard-boiled eggs, all crowned with canned tuna.

But I wasn’t going to use canned anything in my kitchen. At the time, I was discovering the great sushi bars in L.A., and the fish markets sushi chefs frequented to get the best fresh-off-the-boat seafood. I came to love fresh raw ahi, tuna as deep red and meaty-tasting as a good steak.

So I decided to serve sashimi-style slices of raw ahi on my salade Nicoise. My guests’ response was loud and clear: They ate the vegetables and left the tuna right in the middle of the plate.

Then I tried cooking the tuna like a steak - rare, of course. I barely seared a block of tuna filet and then cut it crosswise into slices with the center two-thirds still rosy pink. Guests sent back the salads, saying they wanted their tuna cooked more. But that would only make it dry

There had to be another way - and there was. I decided to marinate the tuna in the style of Latin-American ceviche.

Many people mistakenly think that ceviche, in which absolutely fresh seafood is steeped in a citrus-juice marinade, is actually raw. In fact, the acidity of citrus juice has the same effect on fish that heat does, firming up its texture and turning it opaque. Marinated long enough, the seafood seems indistinguishable from fish cooked in a more conventional way and then tossed with a dressing. Yet, the process leaves the ceviche wonderfully fresh and moist - the best of both the raw and cooked worlds!

So I prepared my version of salade Nicoise that way. No one sent it back for more cooking. Nobody left unfinished tuna on their plates. More and more people started ordering it. When I couldn’t get tuna, I’d substitute salmon or bass, and everyone loved those versions, too.

If you enjoy sushi and sashimi as I do, marinate the fish for just half an hour. For something closer to medium-rare, marinate for three or four hours. To eliminate any suspicion that raw fish is being served, refrigerate the fish in the marinade overnight.

Whatever the timing, the result is a perfectly refreshing main course for a hot sum.

TUNA CEVICHE “RIVIERA”

Serves 6

MARINADE

Juice of 2 limes

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

6 canned anchovy fillets (optional), drained and chopped

3 shallots, finely chopped

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh tarragon leaves

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

SALAD

1 pound absolutely fresh ahi tuna fillet

6 sun-ripened tomatoes

3 heads butter lettuce

1 cucumber, peeled, halved lengthwise, seeded, and cut into bite-sized chunks

1 avocado, halved, pitted, peeled, and thinly sliced

2 hard-boiled eggs, shelled add coarsely chopped

Tender inner stalks from 1 head of celery, chopped

MUSTARD VINAIGRETTE

1/2 tablespoon sherry wine vinegar

1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1/2 teaspoon minced fresh tarragon leaves

Pinch salt

Pinch freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup safflower oil or other flavorless salad oil

Start marinating the fish anywhere from 30 minutes to the night before you plan to serve the salad. To make the marinade, in a nonreactive mixing bowl stir together the lime juice, olive oil, anchovies if you like, shallots, tarragon and salt and pepper to taste.

Cut the tuna fillet into strips 1/4 inch thick. Add them to the marinade and toss to coat them thoroughly. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate - just half an hour to 1 hour for very rare tuna, or as long as overnight for ceviche that’s as firm and opaque as if it had been cooked well done.

To assemble the salads, first peel the tomatoes: bring a saucepan of water to a boil and prepare a bowl of ice water nearby; with a small, sharp knife, core the tomatoes and score a shallow X in their skin at the opposite end; immerse them in the boiling water for about 30 seconds, then transfer with a slotted spoon or wire skimmer to the ice water to cool; and finally peel off the skin starting at the X. Halve the tomatoes horizontally and scoop out their seeds with a fingertip or the handle of a teaspoon. Then, cut the tomatoes into thin slices.

Break up the butter lettuces into individual leaves. Rinse with cold running water and pat them dry with clean kitchen towels or paper towels.

In a large salad bowl, combine the tomatoes, the leaves from 2 of the heads of lettuce, the cucumber, avocado, hard-boiled eggs and the celery.

Make the Mustard Vinaigrette: In a small mixing bowl, use a whisk to stir together the vinegar, mustard, tarragon, salt and pepper. Whisking continuously, slowly trickle in the oil to form a thick dressing.

Add the dressing to the salad ingredients and toss well to mix and coat them. On a serving platter, arrange the remaining lettuce leaves attractively. Mound the salad in their center and arrange the strips of marinated tuna on top.

(Chef Wolfgang Puck’s TV series, “Wolfgang Puck’s Cooking Class,” airs Sundays and Wednesdays on the Food Network. Also, chef Wolfgang Puck’s latest cookbook, Wolfgang Puck Makes It Easy, is now available in bookstores. Write Wolfgang Puck in care of Tribune Media Services Inc., 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY. 14207.)

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