Wednesday, September 8, 2010

What are your "magic ingredients?" Here are two of mine!

I've always felt that if a dish contains quality ingredients, it's going to taste good.
Of course, a cook can mess up almost anything, but as a rule of thumb when I'm creating a new concoction, I try not to worry about the outcome if the basic components are solid.
Which brings me to MAGIC INGREDIENTS: things you can add to a variety of dishes for an instant punch of yumminess.
Fresh figs and avocado almost qualify, but the former is only available a few months per year at most, and avocado isn't all that versatile because (in my experience at least) it's only good raw. Garlic doesn't count because every cook on earth knows that it's crucial to so many cuisines' tastiness.

Do you have any foods that are "magic" in your cooking (or dining, even if someone else cooks)?

Here are my two faves:
FENNEL (cooked especially, but also fine raw) and...SAFFRON.
Readers of this blog know that fennel is a recurring ingredient in my cooking. For a wider view of wonderful ways this veggie can enhance many different recipes, click here for some great ones.

I use saffron much less frequently, but when I do, it's a sure-fire way to give a dish a marvelous complexity and depth of flavor.
For a variety of recipes that use saffron, check out "Sarah Saffron's" website.

The following is my favorite, go-to recipe that has both fennel and saffron as key ingredients. (You actually can make it without those golden threads -- but why?) Halibut would make an excellent substitute for the sea bass -- in fact, I often prefer it. This scrumptious dish definitely is good enough for company.

Recipe: Sea Bass in Orange-Fennel Tomato Sauce
(Serves 4)


4 six-ounce sea bass filets
3 T canola or olive oil
1/2 C chopped onion or shallot
2 T minced garlic
1/2 C thinly sliced celery
1/2 fennel bulb, cored, sliced thin, with 2 T chopped fennel fronds reserved
1/2 C dry white wine
1 tsp. saffron threads
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes, drained
1/2 C orange juice
1 T orange zest (optional)

Salt and pepper to taste


Heat oil on stovetop in a deep, 12" skillet on medium-high heat.

Add onion/shallot, garlic, celery and fennel bulb and sauté for 8-10 minutes, stirring frequently, until veggies are tender and start to brown.

Meanwhile, heat orange juice in a microwave-safe bowl or glass measuring cup for 1 minute on high heat. Remove from microwave and crumble saffron threads into juice. Set aside.

Add wine to skillet and stir-fry for 2 minutes.

Add tomatoes and orange zest to skillet, stir in OJ/saffron mixture. Bring mixture to low boil. (Can be prepared to this point in advance; transfer mixture to large Tupperware bowl, cover and refrigerate for up to 2 days. Reheat sauce in same skillet to low boil.)

Add fish filets and cover pan; reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 8-10 minutes, until fish is opaque. Season with salt and pepper, transfer to serving platter or individual plates, and sprinkle reserved fennel fronds on top.

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