Cooking Tilapia, a Sustainable Fish

The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch website has been nominated for a Webby Award for website excellence. It is the most recent of several honors bestowed on this worthwhile site that informs cooks and consumers on which seafood choices contribute to or are detrimental to ocean health. As one who loves almost every fish and shellfish, I do pay attention to Seafood Watch’s lists. In honor of its honors, I prepared tilapia for dinner this evening.

This farm-raised fish, which is available year-round, is rated a “best” choice when raised in the US, a “good” choice when raised in Central America and a “poor” choice when it comes “from China and Taiwan, where escapes, pollution and weak management are common.” I was assured that our tilapia was born in the USA.

Here’s how I cooked it, drawing inspiration from a recipe I found on the Internet and again, changing it:

Poached Tilapia

2 tilapia fillets
About 3/4 cup organic apple juice
1 garlic clove, peeled and thinly sliced
Water
2 tsp. dried basil leaves

Sauce:
2 Tbsp. reduced fat mayonnaise
2 tsp. bottled horseradish (or quantity to taste)
Sea salt and fresh-ground pepper to taste
Dash hot pepper sauce

Rinse tilapia and marinate in apple juice for about an hour. Fill a a saute pan that has a lid with water to about 3/4 inch. Heat water to boiling, turn off flame and add sliced garlic. Place fillets in the water, top with basil, cover and poach over very low heat for about 15 minutes. Meanwhile, mix sauce ingredients. Serve fillets topped with sauce, or serve sauce on the side.

Serves 2.

Dining When There’s No "There"

Gertrude Stein famously observed, “The trouble with Oakland is that when you get there, there isn’t any there there.” In today’s Denver Post, restaurant critic Tucker Shaw turned his attention to La Sandia. This nuevo Mexican restaurant in the Northfield shopping area is operated by the talented Richard Sandoval whose Tamayo is a Larimer Square favorite. Shaw wrote that he was surprised to hear a 9:00 p.m. last call from the bar on one Friday night, his party of four being immediately seated on another Friday evening and an again empty restaurant in the middle of March Madness that he speculated might been because basketball addicts stayed home or visited places with big-screen TVs. “Each time, the discernible lack of clientele was a bummer,” he wrote.

I had lunch at the also almost-empty La Sandia a few months ago. Like Shaw, I thought the food was terrific and the decor appealing. “It was easy to lose myself in these dishes,” Shaw wrote of La Sandia’s beef barbacoa sopes and beef skewers (with and without bacon and sausage), “and forget about the cavernous space, which, if it were a little more busy, would be quite beautiful.”

One topic on which Shaw and I disagree is the mix-it-yourself guacamole. He thinks that for $6.95, someone should mix it for you, but if you are dining — as I did — with fussy eaters, the notion of mixing your own has a lot of appeal. If someone can’t eat onions, doesn’t like anything spicy or doesn’t care for cilantro, it’s OK. The table can still share an order of guac.

For my part, I was sad, but not surprised, by the emptiness when we ate there. Like Stein’s Oakland, Northfield doesn’t have much “there” yet. The attempts at a New Urbanism town center are sincere, but the curvy streets, the back-of-beyond parking lots and the total cleanliness and “managed-ness” of the place have an Stepford quality to them. The designers and managers have certainly tried, planting street trees, installing attractive street furniture and creating all the Disney-ish trappings that try to tap into nostalgia. Boulder’s 29th Street has a little of this same quality, but it benefits from being surrounded by Boulder. Northfield is at or near the northern end of the old Stapleton Airport’s runways and is surrounded by a lot of emptiness. I prefer more authenticity, vitality and grit to my environment.

I hope La Sandia survives, because it does dish up good food (and the parking out back is free), but I think I’ll return to Tamayo or try Zengo, which I’ve never visited, next time I want a hit of Sandoval’s cuisine.

Farewell to Mel’s

Mel’s to Close in Cherry Creek North

Singers planning retirement frequently book a farewell tour. Athletes announced their final season of competition. But too often, even treasured restaurants close abruptly, with no time for one, last nostalgic visit. Not so with Mel’s Restaurant and Bar (originally, Mel’s Bar and Grill), a Cherry Creek North eatery at 235 Fillmore Street that is closing on April 28 after 12 years as a favorite in Denver’s toniest shopping/dining district. Real estate issues are the reason that Mel’s owners Mel and Janie Master are shuttering the restaurant, but real estate isn’t what this blog is about. It’s about food.

I’m looking forward to one final visit to Mel’s with a couple of friends for lunch on April 24. If we had deeper pockets, we might have reserved spots for the $90 grand finale dinner that evening that will be prepared by past and present Mel’s chefs: Frank Bonnano, now owner of Mizuna and Luca d’Italia, Goose Sorensen, owner/chef of Solera, Tyler Wiard and Corey Treadway, now at Elway’s, and Chad Clevenger, currently the captain of the kitchen at Mel’s. The 24th is the Masters’ 42nd wedding anniversary, which somehow fitting. On the 28th, Chef Chad prepares popular dishes for Mel’s final curtain. If you want to attend one of these specials, or just wish to have a private last meal at Mel’s, call 303-333-3979.

Instead of going into deep mourning, the Masters, including their son, Charles, have already opened instant-hit Montecito at 1120 East 6th Avenue and plan Montecito South at Orchard and Holly. Executive chef for Monty North and Monty South, which is how the Masters refer to this California/Mediterranean eatery, is Chef Adam Mali. He was previously owner/chef of the sadly short-lived Restaurant Kody in Evergreen and more recently executive chef at Aspen’s Ajax Tavern. For reservations at Montecito, call 303-777-8222.

In the works, and also under Chef Mali’s culinary supervision, is Annabel’s, projected to open in May at 5960 South Holly Street in Greenwood Village. It will serve “American comfort food.” Annabel’s is named after Mel and Janie’s granddaughter and Charles’ daughter. I’m happy that I’ll have one more opportunity to eat at Mel’s and even happier that the Masters will be keeping Colorado foodies happy and well fed even after it closes — and if naming a restaurant after a grandchild is an indicator, hopefully for years to come.

Viognier Wines Explained

A few years ago, I noticed that wines labeled viognier started appearing on wine lists and in retail stores. I hadn’t heard of it, but tried it. Over time, I have drunk and liked much of it, but until today, when I was again enlightened by the New York Times, I really knew nothing about it. In an article called “The Comeback of Condrieus is the Story of a Singular Grape,” wine writer Eric Asimov reports, “Today, Condrieu is a fashionable wine, valued around the world for its lush, voluptuous flavors and rich, seductive texture. Yet only 35 years ago the Condrieu appellation in the northern Rhône Valley was barely alive, with only about 30 acres of grapes to its name.”

The viognier grape and the wine made from it in Condrieu were kept on life support largely by Domaine Georges Vernay, whose thin soil and steep, terraced slopes (right) are ideal for this grape. The once out-of-favor white wine was really resuscitated by New World wineries’ discovery of the viognier, the local grape. Grapes sourced from that terroir were sought by California and other winemakers, which in turned spurred the popularity of the original. Now the 30 acres planted with viognier vines in the early 1970s in Condrieu have increased tenfold to some 300 acres.

Asimov reported that “Condrieu producers, like their New World counterparts, are experimenting with several different styles. As with California chardonnay, you are as likely to find a rich, viscous wine framed with new oak as you are a bone dry, crisp, minerally wineI am not a fan of obvious new oak flavors in any wine, but in Condrieu new oak integrates beautifully with the viognier’s tropical flavors.”

In this country, California and Washington State vineyards are growing viognier grapes. Asimov further wrote that “The grape itself is said to be difficult and capricious, and yields must be kept low, particularly because so many vines are young, planted in the last 10 years and prone to overcropping. Growers do not consider viognier vines to be in their prime until they are 25 years old. The combination of young vines and high yields can result in thin and shallow wines.”

Asimov, Times food writer Florence Fabricant, Bernard Sun, beverage director for Jean-Georges Management, and Jean-Luc Le Dû, owner of Le Dû’s Wines in New York, tasted French and US viogniers. I believe that I have had only domestic viogniers, and Asimov’s explanation of the patience required to produce a top wine from that grape might explain why I liked some a lot better than others.

Two Crested Butte Classics Change Hands

I’ve returned from Crested Butte and the North American SnowSports Journalists Association annual meeting. While there, I learned that two classic Crested Butte restaurants have new owners. Mac Bailey hit upon a successful all-you-can-eat formula of comfort food before that had a name. He had been dishing up skillet-fried chicken, steak, mashed potatoes, creamed corn, biscuits with honey butter, and the best cole slaw around since 1983. He has now sold The Slogar Bar & Restaurant to CJay Clark and Megan Barney, who aren’t messing with a winner and are keeping the old recipes and retaining the same old hospitality and friendly informality.

Meanwhile, around the corner, the exquisite little fine-dining establishment called Soupcon (right) has also changed hands. I believe that it was also owned by Mac Bailey, but executive chef Scott Greene, who was at the helm in the kitchen, put his own distinctive culinary stamp on it. Quaint and charming, Soupcon was and remains the stylistic opposite of The Slogar. Greene has relocated to warmer climes, specifically to Boca Raton, FL, leaving Soupcon in the best of hands. The new owner/chef is Jason Vernon, an alumnus of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY.

While Slogar’s menu remains unaltered, some things have changed at Soupcon and others not at all. Chef Jason changes Soupcon’s menu every three weeks or so. His sophisticated and refined cuisine relies on seasonal and especially local ingredients where possible. The achingly charming restaurant looks as it always has, with small tables decked out in crisp white linens and fresh flowers, and bentwood chairs that fit perfectly into this old log cabin in a quiet alley. Fine foods and wines to match remain the hallmark in this finest of all fine-dining restaurants in Crested Butte.

The Good Egg

Instead of the standard gas-fired grill, charcoal-burning kettle or even hibachi, my husband had been considering a Big Green Egg, a modern American rendition of an ancient Kamado cooker from Japan. Our brother-in-law, who grew up in a military family and lived in Japan, swears by it. It gets rave reviews on foodie message boards. With trepidation because it is expensive, I bought one for my husband for Christmas, and we finally tried it last night. Wow! We made simple chicken breasts that turned out perfectly: cooked through, still moist inside and, perhaps best of all, bearing some of that delicious char-grilled flavor that I hadn’t gotten in years.

Made of heavy, kiln-fired ceramic glazed in the green that gives it its trade name, the big Green Egg uses natural charcoal, lights without liquid starter and heats to cooking temperature in about 10 minutes. Adjusting top and bottom dampers controls the temperature, which is easily seen on an external gauge that shows both Fahrenheit and Celsius. The company sayd temperature accuracy is shown within within two degrees from 50 to 750 degrees. Closing both dampers kills the flame.

So far, we have only tried one cooking method and one food, but it seems that the Big Green Egg is a grill and a smoker and even an oven. Meats, seafood, veggies and pizza can reportedly all be cooked on (or should I write “in”?) a Big Green Egg.

Easy Sausage and Peppers

King Soopers is having a sale on bell peppers — red, yellow and green all 10 for $10. It’s unusual, around here anyway, for the yellow and red to be as inexpensive as the green. I bought a bunch, roasted some and still had a few left over. Having spent my formative years in the Northeast, that Italian-American staple of Sausage and Peppers was the first (and perhaps only) dish that popped into my mind. I’m not sure why I specified “easy” on this post, because this is a dish that is always easy, whether the sausage is cooked whole and then cut into pieces or cut into pieces and then cooked, and whether it is made with one, two or three colors of bell pepper. Here’s the way I prepared them.

Sausage and Peppers

3 tablespoons olive oil
2 large garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 1/2 pounds sweet Italian sausage, cut into 1-inch pieces (I used sweet turkey sausage, but pork sausage or hot sausage would work well too)
1 each green, yellow and red pepper bell pepper, seeded and cut into thin strips
1 large onion, peeled and sliced
1 14 1/2-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 tablespoon dried basil
2 teaspoons dried oregano
Kosher salt and pepper to taste

Heat oil in large, heavy skillet (with a lid) over medium heat. Add garlic and sauté until golden, about 1 minute. Mix in sausage and cook until browned, about 8 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add peppers and onion, and cook until almost tender, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. Stir in in tomatoes, basil, oregano, salt and pepper. Turn down the heat to low, cover and simmer 25 minutes. Uncover and cook for another minutes.

I served the Sausage and Peppers with penne (tubular pasta), cooked al dente, with freshly Parmesan on the side. Two of us ate generous portions, and there’s enough left for two more meals.

Claire Walter's Colorado-oriented but not Colorado-exclusive blog about restaurants, food and wine events, recipes and related news. For address of any restaurant, click on the Zomato icon at the end of the post.