Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Brillat-Savarin, the famous 19th-century French gastronome, wrote that “the discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a new star.”

I agree with this often-quoted statement, but I’m tempted to replace the word “dish” with “ingredient.” My own culinary creations are often inspired by new, sometimes exotic or foreign items that appear in our groceries.

Mascarpone cheese, the ultra-rich creamy cheese from Italy; fleur de sel, France’s exquisite hand-harvested sea salt; robust lemon grass, an herb used in Southeast Asian cooking; and fresh and dried Mexican chilies are all ingredients that have sparked my imagination to invent new dishes.

My most recent find has been Spanish marcona almonds. A year ago, I discovered these delicious almonds in a local supermarket. A container of the shelled and skinless nuts was set out for sampling, and after one bite I was hooked.

The Spanish almonds, rounded and flatter than American varieties, with an unbelievably rich flavor and a crisp texture, are lightly sauteed in olive oil and seasoned with sea salt. These almonds have been a time-saver for me on many occasions when entertaining.

They’re so good that I have simply poured them into a bowl and offered them as an appetizer with wine. (Spaniards nibble the almonds with a glass of sherry.) Several weeks ago, I found another use for them. I was going to bake halibut steaks with a topping of chopped almonds, minced ginger root, grated lime zest and cilantro but couldn’t find any traditional almonds on my shelf.

Then I spotted the marconas. Why not, I reasoned, and the results were outstanding. The tender fish was delicious, but it was the delectable garnish, enhanced by the enticing taste of the marcona almonds, that made the entree distinctive.

Now I’m planning a dinner party menu with the halibut steaks as the centerpiece and saffron rice and blanched asparagus spears as sides. But I guess I’ll have to find a new appetizer.

Baked halibut steaks with almonds, ginger and lime

4 scallions

2 teaspoons lime zest

2 teaspoons minced ginger root

cup Marcona almonds, coarsely chopped (see note)

1/4 cup chopped cilantro

4 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon unsalted butter

6 7- to 8-ounce halibut steaks, each about 1-inch thick

Kosher salt

Trim root ends and all but 4 inches of green stems from scallions. Then chop and place in a small bowl. Add lime zest, ginger root, almonds and cilantro.

Mix well and set aside. (Mixture can be prepared 2 hours ahead; leave at cool room temperature.) Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil and grease foil with a teaspoon of the butter.

Place fish on pan, cut remaining 4 tablespoons of butter into small pieces and use half of it to dot the top of the halibut steaks. Season steaks with salt.

Bake fish on rack at center position of preheated 450-degree oven until flesh is opaque and flakes easily when pierced with a knife, about 10 minutes. Remove from oven and spoon almond, ginger root and lime topping over each steak.

Dot topping on each steak with remaining pieces of butter.

Return to oven and bake 2 minutes more or just until butter melts. Remove and use a spatula to transfer fish to a serving plate. Serve immediately. Makes 6 servings.

Note: Marcona almonds, usually sold shelled and skinless plus sauteed in olive oil and seasoned with sea salt, are available in some groceries and in specialty food stores. They can also be found on line at www.tienda.com.

You can substitute traditional almonds (preferably whole and skinless). Spread on a rimmed baking sheet and toast them in a 350-degree oven until lightly browned, 6 to 8 minutes.

Remove, cool and salt lightly.


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