and Curtis Duffy
teamed up to host a cooking contest that interested me, so I decided to give it a shot. Contestants are required to create an entrée using fennel (the entire plant), mushrooms (any kind), fish (any one variety), and chocolate (minimum 85% cocoa solids).
I like to cook relatively traditional Italian food, so while others probably looked to the creative sides of their brain while thinking about how to pair chocolate with such savory ingredients, I was directed to a generations-old “secret” among Italian cooks. “Sweet and sour” preparations are popular in many cuisines, with Italian and its “agrodolce” dishes no exception. Typically, these vinegar reductions are sweetened with fruit and/or sugar, then cooked with an array of possible fish, meats or vegetables. Though not all that commonplace, chocolate is not an untraditional addition to these sauces, and good Italian cooks know that chocolate's earthy bitterness serves as an excellent bridge between the sweet and the sour.
With the Italian theme in my head, I set about thinking about how to put a complete entrée together. With such rich, earthy ingredients, tuna came immediately to mind as the right fish choice. It pairs exceptionally well with fennel and mushrooms, and has a strong, meaty taste (and color) to hold up to an ingredient as dark and potent as chocolate. Since I also planned to use red wine as a key flavoring agent, I decided to crust the tuna with black peppercorns to pick up the spiciness of the Valpolicella.
Good Italian cooks hate to waste ingredients, so I appreciated this contest’s insistence that we use every part of the fennel, and I decided to take that further by doing the same with the mushrooms. So, using the fennel stalks and mushroom stems and an herb bundle that included fennel fronds, I made a deeply flavorful vegetable stock that - along with the soaking liquid from some dried porcini - became a base for a red wine risotto to serve with the tuna. A good risotto is almost always finished with a hefty dose of butter to add richness and bring elements of the dish into harmony. I used some butter too, but replaced some of it with chopped 99% cacao chocolate, added off the heat to provide that same richness, and also enhance the earth and fruit flavors in the wine. I also chose a young Pecorino Romano to add mild, creamy flavor and saltiness that I think plays well with chocolate.
Strong red wine, chocolate, mushrooms, dark tuna flesh: these are strong, meaty, earthy flavors. To bring the entree into balance, some bright acidity would be needed, and this is where the fennel agrodolce came into play. I cooked the fennel slowly in butter until it was quite soft, then added white balsamic vinegar and a touch of sugar, and let that reduce until the vinegar was almost cooked off. I melted in just a touch of chocolate to finish it.
My wife declared the result fantastic: familiar yet like nothing else she'd ever tasted. I too thought this was a very nice dish, with the disparate-seeming ingredients achieving great balance in the end.
Here are some pictures.Tuna, fennel, criminis and Sharffenberger unsweetened chocolate with 99% cocoa solids:Stock for risotto: fennel stalks, mushroom stems, onion, herb bundle (fennel fronds and thyme), peppercorns:
Garlic (yes, garlic with chocolate!) getting started for the mushrooms that will go into risotto:Grated pecorino romano and shaved chocolate (will finish the risotto):First 1/2 cup of Valpolicella added to Vialone Nano rice:Risotto finishing touches: sautéed mushrooms, romano, chocolate, fennel fronds and butter:Chopped golden raisins added to sautéing fennel:Chocolate stirred in (after sugar and white balsamic cooked until evaoprated):Here's the finished fennel agrodolce:
Raw tuna rolled in crushed black peppercorns and salt:Pepper-crusted tuna after a quick sear:Pepper crusted tuna, red wine and mushroom risotto, fennel agrodolce:
...defended from strong temptations to social ambition by a still stronger taste for tripe and onions." Screwtape in The Screwtape Letters
by CS LewisFuckerberg on Food