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A little summer...now

A little summer...now

Hey, how’re you doing? How’s your year going? Me? Fine, fine…although I could use a cookie right about now, thanks. At the moment though, no cookies; I am concentrating on losing the ample holiday joy that is making my pants just a little tight. I wouldn’t be surprised if the buttons and zipper in my pants sued me for hazard pay.

The bad news about the holidays ending in the dead of winter is that we are all at the peak of our “fatten-up-for winter-and-then hibernate” instinct. So, to then turn around and start trying to lose weight seems like Mother Nature is taunting us. Bears have the best technique: they sleep through several weeks’ worth of meals then emerge svelte but ravenous. I don’t recommend this for humans. Okay, maybe runway models—if they can fit the hibernation into their schedules.

I look at it this way: during the holidays I eat a lot of the stuff I make myself. Simply by changing what I make (no cookies) I have a head start on dropping my holiday heft.

As I continue my sentence at hard labor for sins of over indulgence committed at holiday time, I am looking around every proverbial corner for meals that will amuse me. Having been a waiter for a long time, I am able to adapt ideas I saw over the years in restaurants to this cause.

As it happens, my memory was jogged a few days ago during a trip through the plastic wrap and foil aisle of the supermarket. (Yes, yes I know: I hit some exciting spots, don’t I? A colleague just returned from Buenos Aires. It’s summer there. I just returned from Gristede’s. It’s winter there.)

Ah, yes, the supermarket: my eye caught a box of parchment baking bags. Long ago I had a chef teach me (or try to teach me) the elaborate crimping technique they use to create the beautiful parchment bags in which they steam and serve food. Pre-made parchment bags seemed like a convenient idea for me. Lazy? Yes. Sorry, it’s the hibernation instinct coming out. (I’m milking that excuse for all it’s worth.)

Don’t worry: I’m the first one to snore at steamed food. I’ll even throw in a “yech.” The real trick I learned from those chefs is what goes in the bag along with the beautiful fish and perfectly manicured vegetables.

Any chef worth his salt (pardon the pun) will tell you that it all starts with the best ingredients. Yeah, sure: that’s like saying that great literature is just a bunch of words. Chefs know how to “goose” the flavor in everything they cook: a little extra grilling here, a little touch of pepper there.

When it comes to parchment-bag steamed meals—which enjoyed a vogue about fifteen years ago—the magic ingredient was compound butter. Compound butter goes back – at least—to Escoffier. The concept is trés simple: soften butter, mix in colorful, flavorful ingredients, and freeze into a log. Slices of the frozen butter are then added to cooking food, or in the case of beef, melted on top as the beef is plated for service.

The gorgonzola you often see in photos relaxing alluringly on a filet mignon was likely a bit of compound butter. In the case of the about to be steamed fish in the picture above, I made a citrus compound butter. Right about now you’re asking, “Hey buddy! I thought you were on a diet. What’s up with the butter?”

My answer is that I don’t use real butter. Even on a good day I can’t eat butter. You may notice that many of my recipes mention that I use a butter substitute. To be polite, real butter is delicious, but gives my stomach…um…grief. Purists: I agree, nothing tastes like real butter. But nothing is better than a happy tummy tum tum. Aside from that, using real butter in this recipe is relatively harmless. At most you’d be using two tablespoons. I say go for it.

I use Earth Balance because its mix of oils mimics the healthy profile of olive oil. (There are several excellent products like this.) This makes it perfect for the Butter Flour Eggs spa menu. Besides: it’s the flavors in the compound butter that do the heavy lifting. The butter is mostly there for moral support.

The citrus compound butter recipe is simple: allow a quarter pound of butter to soften. With a fork, mash in the grated rind of three oranges, and one lime. Feeling ambitious? Throw the butter in a blender with the grated citrus rinds, a half teaspoon of salt, and a tablespoon of orange juice. (I find the blender version delicious but hate cleaning the blender.)

Roll the butter into a parchment-wrapped log and freeze. When it is time for dinner, cut the log into silver dollar-sized slices, place in the parchment bag with the other ingredients, salt and pepper, and bake.

To be honest, the flounder shown in the photo above is not ideal for this technique. Use a slightly thicker fish like halibut, salmon, or the ubiquitous sea bass. I added julienne strips of carrot, red pepper, and fingerling potato. Yes, potato on a diet. One. Sue me.

Again, it’s about the technique. Anything you add to the bag should be cut to approximately the same size so that everything cooks evenly. Green beans? Perfect too.

Keep this technique in your back pocket for summertime. A little gorgonzola butter on your burgers anyone? How about melting some of the citrus butter on your corn on the cob?

As I write this it is 27˚ outside and the weatherman is predicting snow. Mmmmm. Summer. I’ll be thin by then.

Won’t I?

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

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