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Fish For Springtime

Chef Bill Telepan grew up in a home where cooking and food were essential elements. Every Sunday at 3 p.m., his family sat down for a big, lengthy meal.

Today, food continues to play a vital role in his life. Telepan is the executive chef of a three-star restaurant, JUdson Grill (yes, it's spelled with a capital "U"), located in the heart of New York City. We asked him to create a flavorful summer meal for four on our $30 budget.

Telepan has trained with some of the best chefs in the world, including Daniel Boulud. He was the last American to work in the legendary kitchen of the late Alain Chapel, who promoted the idea of appreciating and using seasonal produce in the kitchen – a more unusual idea 14 years ago.

Telepan took over JUdson Grill in 1998 and elevated the restaurant to three-star status in just four months. Telepan says he believes Americans are much more knowledgeable about food, but that doesn't mean food has to be cutting-edge or high-end to be successful. He says a restaurant really needs to deliver quality first. Sometimes he does like to push the envelope, but Telepan says that "over dressing" a dish doesn't mean it's better tasting.

Telepan and his wife live in New York City with their daughter. The couple belongs to a community-supported agricultural farm, where they pick up a variety of organic produce to cook with at home. Supporting local farmers is another of his passions.

His first cookbook is slated for a Fall/Winter 2004 publication by Simon and Schuster.

Telepan's menu: an appetizer of Carrot Soup with Dill Croutons; an entrée of Tilapia with Parsley-Caper Oil, Warm Cucumbers, and Red Onion; and for dessert, Lemon Verbena Custard with Rhubarb Compote.

Terminology:

Tilapia: Telepan says he loves tilapia because "it's environmentally good and low in mercury," important to him as a chef and as a dad. Tilapia is a family of fish that originated in Africa and has been around for thousands of years. Originally found in the Nile River, Tilapia were one of the first fish to be farmed and are supposed to be the fish that Jesus Christ fed the masses. They are small fish, about 1 to 2 pounds. They are also a very important fish and will become more so in the years to come. The reason: the Tilapia that you buy are raised on fish farms. This means that the species is controlled in population, so we don't have to worry about them being fished to near extinction like the Chilean Sea Bass or other species. This also means that there is a consistent and constant supply of Tilapia year round. Tilapia have good flavor and texture, and they are versatile and easily adapted to most any kind of cooking. Their mild flavor and lends itself to any kind of seasoning you want to add. The fish is very low in fat, free of saturated fat and high in protein. Tilapia ares easy to prepare and are a great fish to grill, though be careful grilling because these are small thin fillets and you don't want to handle them on the grill too much. Tilapia are usually white fish with white flesh, though red-skinned Tilapia will have a reddish colored meat.

Rhubarb: Telepan used rhubarb in his dessert. Rhubarb, which looks like a red or pink celery stalk, is botanically a vegetable, but it is used as a fruit, largely in pies and sauces. The ancient Chinese cultivated the plant for its roots, which reputedly have medicinal properties, and it didn't gain acceptance as a food in the United States until the late 1700s. Two types of rhubarb are available: field-grown (large dark red and green streaked stalks with a tart flavor) and the less tart hothouse rhubarb (small, light pink and almost stringless). Both types should be purchased only if they are firm and crisp. Telepan prefers the field-grown variety for its intense flavor and rosy color. Field-grown rhubarb appears on the market from April through June or July. Hothouse rhubarb, which is cultivated in California, Oregon and Michigan, is mainly harvested from January through June. Rhubarb is also available frozen. Telepans warns that all leaves should be removed from rhubarb as they are poisonous. Strings should not be removed, as they contain the color. Strings will break down during cooking.

Lemon Verbena: Lemon Verbena is an herb that originated in South America. It has long, narrow, pointed leaves with a pleasant, sharp lemon scent and flavor, quite different from other lemon-scented herbs. It has been described as "lemon perfume." Lemon Verbena was brought to Europe in the 17th or 18th century, and has been popular in France for many years. It is used to make tea, as a seasoning, and as a perfume and soap fragrance. You can often find lemon verbena loose in tea shops or gourmet shops. If you can't find lemon verbena, you can use lemon verbena tea in the dessert recipe.

Recipes:

Carrot Soup with Carrot Slaw, and Dill Croutons
Serves 4

Carrot Slaw

Ingredients:
1 egg yolk, at room temperature
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 cup (7 ounces) packed grated carrots

Make a creamy lemon vinaigrette by whisking together the yolk and lemon juice in a small bowl. Season with salt and pepper.

Continue to whisk while slowly drizzling in the olive oil, then add the cream, to form an emulsified dressing.

Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Set aside.

Put the grated carrots in a separate bowl.

Drizzle 1/4 cup of the dressing over them, season with salt and pepper, stir well with a wooden spoon, cover, and chill in the refrigerator for 1 hour or overnight.

Reserve the extra dressing for another use; store in the refrigerator for up to three days.

Dill Croutons

Ingredients:
3 to 4 slices sourdough bread, crusts removed, cut into 1/2-inch squares (3/4 cup cubes)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F.

Put the cubed bread on a cookie sheet in a single layer. Bake in the oven until completely dried but not browned, about 20 minutes.

While the bread is baking, in a bowl large enough to hold the croutons, stir together the dill and olive oil and season the mixture with salt.

When the croutons are crispy, remove them from the oven, transfer them to the bowl with the dill oil, and toss well. These croutons can be made up to 2 hours ahead of time and kept at room temperature.

Soup and Assembly

Ingredients:
3/4 pound carrots (from 3 to 5 small or medium carrots), peeled and thickly sliced crosswise
salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small leek, white and light green parts only, washed, split lengthwise, and thinly sliced crosswise
1/2 small onion, peeled and sliced
1 clove garlic, peeled and sliced
2 cups vegetable stock or water
1 1/2 cups carrot juice
1/4 cup chopped dill

Put the carrots in a bowl and sprinkle 1 teaspoon of salt over them. Set aside to let the salt draw out the carrots' moisture while you begin making the soup.

In a 2-quart pot, warm the olive oil over low heat. Add the leek, onion and garlic, season with salt, and cook until the vegetables are softened but not browned (about 7 minutes). Add the carrots, cover and cook until they are tender but not browned, and they release their liquid (about 30 minutes).

Pour in the stock (or water), raise the heat to high, and bring the stock to a boil. Lower the heat and let the liquid simmer for 10 minutes.

You may need to do the following in batches:

  1. Carefully transfer the contents of the pot to the bowl of a blender or food processor fitted with the metal blade. Process until smooth. Transfer to a bowl.
  2. Stir, taste, and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Let cool to room temperature, then cover and chill in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour, or for up to 4 days.
  3. When ready to proceed, stir the carrot juice into the soup.

To serve, divide the soup among 4 chilled or cold bowls. Use a spoon or tongs to put some of the slaw in the middle of the soup. Top the slaw with a sprig of dill and scatter the croutons over the surface of the soup.

Tilapia with Parsley-Caper Oil, Warm Cucumbers, and Red Onion
Serves 4

Ingredients:
8 sprigs rosemary
8 sprigs thyme
8 sprigs flat-leaf parsley
4 tilapia fillets, approx. 5-ounces each
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 medium red onion, ends trimmed, thinly sliced lengthwise
salt to taste
1 hothouse cucumber, or large regular cucumber, peeled, halved lengthwise, seeds or soft center scooped and discarded, and cut crosswise into 1/4-inch slices
1/4 cup Vegetable Stock or water
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice, plus 1/2 lemon for squeezing
1 tablespoon finely sliced chives
1 tablespoon minced flat-leaf parsley leaves
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for brushing the fish
parsley-caper oil (recipe follows)

Arrange half the rosemary, thyme and parsley sprigs on a baking sheet. Put the fish fillets, skinned-side down, on top of the herbs.

Scatter the remaining herbs over the fish. Cover the fish with plastic wrap, molding the wrap around the fish to keep it moist, and gently press the herbs into the flesh.

Put the sheet in the refrigerator and chill at least 1 hour and up to 4 hours.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Remove the fish from the refrigerator and let it come to room temperature (about 15 minutes). Remove the plastic wrap from the fish.

Pick the herbs off the top of the fish and set them aside. Rub each fillet with 1 teaspoon of olive oil and season with salt. Bake until just opaque, 10 to 15 minutes, prying apart the flesh on 1 fillet to check for doneness.

Squeeze some lemon juice over the fillets as soon as they come out of the oven; this is when they will take on the most flavor.

Meanwhile, cook the cucumbers: Melt the butter in a sauté pan set over medium-low heat. Add the onion, season with salt, cover, and cook until softened but not browned (about 5 minutes).

Increase the heat to high, add the cucumbers, and sauté for 2 minutes. Pour in the stock or water and cook until liquid is reduced and the vegetables are nicely glazed, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the lemon juice, chives and parsley, and season to taste with salt.

Remove the pan from the heat and set aside, covered, to keep warm.

To serve, divide the cucumbers and onions among four dinner plates, mounding them in the center. Top each mound with a fish fillet. Drizzle herb-caper oil (recipe follows) over and around the fish and vegetables on each plate. Serve at once.

Herb-Caper Oil

Ingredients:
2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves
2 teaspoons finely chopped shallot
2 teaspoons capers, rinsed and drained
2 anchovy filets, rinsed
1/4 teaspoon minced garlic
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
salt (if necessary)

Put the parsley and shallots in a small bowl. Finely chop the capers, anchovy and garlic together on a cutting board and mash them together with the side of a large, wide-bladed knife to form a paste. Add the paste to the bowl with the herbs and shallots.

Slowly whisk in the olive oil. Taste and add salt if necessary; the anchovies and capers may be salty enough. This can be made earlier in the day you plan to serve it.

Cover tightly and store it in the refrigerator. Let it come to room temperature before using.

Lemon-Verbena Custard with Rhubarb Compote
Serves 4

Ingredients:
2 large stalks rhubarb, cut crosswise into ¼-inch pieces, about 2 cups
pinch ground cinnamon
2/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1 1/2 cups milk
4 lemon verbena leaves, or 1 bag lemon verbena tea
1 egg
3 egg yolks

Put the rhubarb, 1/3 cup of the sugar, the cinnamon, and the orange juice in a small non-reactive saucepot. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally.

After 5 to 8 minutes, the rhubarb will become a thick, pulpy compote. Divide the compote evenly among four 6-ounce ramekins.

Place the ramekins in a shallow baking dish and set aside to cool. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Put the milk and verbena leaves in a medium saucepan and set over medium-high heat. Bring the milk to a boil, then immediately remove the pot from the heat, stir in the remaining 1/3 cup of the sugar, set aside, and let the mixture steep until its temperature drops to lukewarm.

Pour the milk mixture through a fine-mesh strainer set over a bowl. Discard the verbena leaves. Rinse the strainer. (If using a tea bag, skip the straining step and simply discard the tea bag).

Lightly beat the egg and yolks together in a medium bowl.

Slowly add the milk mixture, whisking as you do. Strain this custard mixture through the fine-mesh strainer set over another bowl.

Gently pour equal amounts of custard over the rhubarb in each ramekin, taking care not to dislodge the compote.

Put the baking dish on an oven's center rack. Carefully pour cold water into the baking dish, nearly to the top of the ramekins, then position the baking dish in the center of the oven.

Bake the custards until just set, approximately 55 minutes; a good custard should "shimmy" a bit when tapped.

Remove the baking dish from the oven and let it stand a moment. The custards must be taken from the water to stop the cooking; a quick grab with your bare fingertips is the easiest way to remove them, but an off-set spatula underneath each ramekin works just as well.

Let the custards cool to room temperature, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. The custards will keep this way for up to 1 week.

To serve: Simply remove the plastic from the ramekins and serve the custards cold from the refrigerator.

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