Monday, January 14, 2008

Roast Salmon with Yogurt and Horseradish

Over the holidays, we had a superbly delicious dinner at Tanoreen, a Palestinian restaurant deep in Brooklyn. I would have never known about it without an invitation from one of my dear friends and great Chef, himself a Mid East mutt with a trans border heritage of Israeli, Palestinian and Greek. The place is a small, table packed, home style jewel run by an enthusiastic Nazareth native as a paean to the cooking closest to her heart.

As she circulates, only occasionally, through the restaurant to check on her customers, she does so with the immense pride of someone who KNOWS “how everything is”. She’s just too much in control of her kitchen not to know. Yet that tight reign seems to have a gentle hand, and in fact that’s what makes the food so bright in flavor, so light on the tongue. This food manages to taste familiar, at the first bite. No matter if you grew up, as I did, in deep Midwest, generation upon generation removed from a grape leaf or chickpea. I feel this is all a reflection on the honesty with which Chef Rawia Bishara treats her ingredients.

Should you ever have the treat of visiting her restaurant at 7704 3rd Avenue in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, spend a few moments with Chef Rawia tableside and learn a bit about how she approaches cooking. It’s easy, just ask her anything about how a dish is made, or where that new/old familiar flavor is coming from in the lamb shank, or the kibbeh, or the cauliflower salad. That’s how I learned they make all of the yogurt they use, in house; cultivated from naturally occurring bacterium. The difference is delicious.

Inspired by her purity of flavors and commitment to quality, I have been dusting off my spice grinder and sifting through the middle eastern markets of Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. Though not quite ready to whip up a batch of home cultured yogurt, I was excited to find a quart of whole milk plain yogurt with which to make some yogurt cheese. While you can make yogurt cheese with the more common lowfat yogurt typically found in supermarkets, you’ll enjoy a much richer result if you can source a full fat/whole milk product. Try natural food stores or ethnic markets.

Making yogurt cheese is second only to boiling water when it comes to ease of preparation.

Find a clean sieve and set it over a larger bowl where it can rest securely with sufficient clearance beneath to catch the draining liquid. Line the sieve with 3 or 4 layers of cheesecloth. I have also substituted coffee filters for the cheesecloth with great results. Place the plain yogurt in the lined sieve, cover loosly, and refrigerate the entire contraption for at least 12 hours.

The consistency of the yogurt cheese is entirely up to you, depending upon how you wish to use it. If I plan to make it into Tzatziki, I might let it drain a little more than if I plan to use it in my salmon recipe. It’s all up to you. My talented Chef buddy who introduced me to Tanoreen lets his drain for several days until he can roll bite sized yogurt cheese “truffles” which he marinates and cures in his special sourced Israeli Olive Oil. These are precious gifts he shares with his friends, of which I am happily and graciously one.

I’m not going to give you exact recipes as I want you to find the balance of flavor that seems perfect to your palate. I will give you an indication of what works for me.
Set aside 1 cup of drained yogurt cheese. Peel one large cucumber and cut it into 3 inch sections. Using the large holes of a box grater, coarsely grate one section of the cucumber, stopping when you reach the seeds. Rotate the cucumber until you have grated all of the “meat” and discard the center seed section. Continue until you have grated all of the cucumber pieces. Place the shredded cucumber in a bowl and toss generously with kosher salt. Use at least 2 teaspoons. Place the cucumber in a sieve, place plastic wrap directly on the cucumber then cover with a plate and something to weigh it down. I find canned good work great. Place the weighted sieve over a bowl to catch the juices which will be released form the cucumbers. Allow to sit at room temperature for a minimum of 20 minutes, but an hour is better.
Meanwhile, take one small clove of garlic and mince it finely. When it is finely chopped, add a few pinches of salt. Using a table fork, mash the garlic with the salt until it forms a paste. Add this to the reserved yogurt cheese. In addition, add about ½ teaspoon of dried mint leaf. Set seasoned yogurt cheese aside.
When cucumber has rested and drained, remove sieve from the bowl (reserving drained cucumber juice) and rinse the cucumber thoroughly under cold running water. Squeeze the cucumber dry and mix into yogurt mix. Stir in a tablespoon or so of excellent extra virgin olive oil. At this point I like to stir in a bit of the reserved cucumber liquid. Not traditional, but I enjoy the boost of cucumber flavor. When the Tzatziki is at your desired consistency check for salt and pepper, season to taste and enjoy. It is great served with warm pide bread or pita toasts. Also delicious as a relish for grilled meats.

Another use I have developed for yogurt cheese is …

Salmon with Yogurt and Horseradish – serves two

¾ pound salmon filet
1/3 cup yogurt cheese
2 tablespoons prepared horseradish, lightly squeezed
1 pinch freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon fresh dill, finely chopped (optional)
salt & pepper

Preheat convection oven to 350*, conventional oven to 375*.
Clean salmon filet of pin bones and remove skin. Cut into two portions, season with salt & pepper and set aside. Combine yogurt cheese, horseradish, nutmeg and dill (if using). It should be about the consistency of cake frosting. If the yogurt was drained to an extremely thick texture, you may want to add a tiny bit of water. Cover the tops of the salmon portions with the yogurt mixture, as if frosting a cake.
Place on a lightly oiled baking sheet and roast for 5 – 10 minutes depending on thickness of filets. My preference is for the salmon center to be still rosy. It will continue to cook after it leaves the oven.
This is delicious served with orzo, all grains, even tabouleh.

Now go have fun and experiment with yogurt cheese. It keeps for over a week if the yogurt was fresh when you bought it.