Anatomy of a Dish: Worcestershire Gel-Poached Arctic Char, Carolina Gold Rice & Heirloom Benne Salad, Char Skin Chicharrones, Flavors of Summer

When Carl Galvan and David Carrier invited me to contribute to the dinner at Kith and Kin in honor of the wild Nunavit arctic char, I saw it first as an opportunity to work side by side with some of Chicago’s top chefs, and it was an added bonus that we would be preparing dishes with a very special fish. It also represented an opportunity to work outside my kitchen, so I thought it would be fun to take things in a direction a little different from our regular cooking at Big Jones.

Even though we often get progressive with our culinary techniques at Big Jones, when we do outside events I tend to favor very traditional dishes that make great ambassadors for a Coastal Southern kitchen, such as shrimp & grits, gumbo, boudin, or andouille. I felt very strongly I wanted to take a different approach this time, because the Nunavit char was telling me it wanted something different. The stunningly pristine flesh begged to be served as sushi. The Japanese have a wonderful way with fish, and if you want to go raw, Japanese cuisine is a great place to start looking for inspiration. I had the idea of using Carolina gold rice, a truly versatile rice, as the rice component of a nigiri or maki presentation. I thought the splendidly rich, buttery flesh would blend well with our head cheese, and started dreaming up ways to pair the two proteins with the rice.

Even though I’ve been around the block a few times and have shaped and rolled my share of sushi, I ultimately decided that an assortment of Southern-inspired sushi rolls was absurd, but I continued to be fascinated by the “overlap” between the Japanese and Southern pantries. There was also sesame seed, a.k.a. bennes, of which we’ve recently added a 200+ year-old heirloom benne to our pantry so the opportunity to feature these as an element was compelling. Pickles and salted vegetables have been a project at Big Jones recently with the harvest peaking, and I can never make it through a meal at a Japanese restaurant without enjoying some oshinko and sunimono, so the parallels continued to beat me over the head. One night while reading, I came across a Japanese dish called Namasu, which is marinated raw seafood and vegetables served in a salad form, and if you go back far enough, it shares a common culinary history with the Chinese Yusheng, a dish that was popular in Chinese restaurants in the 1970’s. Even though the Yusheng was named as such in 1964 Singapore, its roots in the ancient Guangzhou Kuai is well established.

Finally it seemed I had an interesting springboard for a dish unlike any we’ve served at Big Jones, that would also honor the char as it should while allowing me to work with and showcase some Southern heritage in the gold rice, benne, and house pickles. In the end, I would throw one truly Japanese twist on things by using umeboshi plum vinegar in the rice and cucumber salad preparations, and umeboshi plum juice to create a light but flavorful sauce for the finish.

Wanting to keep things as Southern as possible, I felt I could make Worcestershire work in place of soy sauce and further wanted to try a technique that has interested me to no end – poaching fish in a hot fluid gel that would ultimately set and encapsulate the fish, adding an interesting textural component and flavor release that would be both novel and delicious. This proved, as I suspected it would, to be the most challenging part of the dish. However, once mastered, we were able to obtain a perfectly medium-rare fish encapsulated in a thin layer of pungent Worcestershire sauce that added a unique visual element while blending its luscious texture seamlessly with the creamy char, and releasing the flavor of Worcestershire gradually so that it paired with the fish evenly through each bite.

Finally, planning on poaching the char in gel meant I would be removing the skin. Char has exquisite skin with great flavor and texture. When searing, roasting, or grilling, I always leave it on. It’s a terrible thing to waste. Since I was planning on pairing the fish with head cheese, the idea popped into my head that with its high collagen content, char skin should be able to make chicharrones in the same manner as pork skin. This one actually saves the step of boiling or braising before dehydrating. A test on salmon skin worked beautifully, so we would now additionally have a crisp component to set off the creaminess and unctuous textures of the char and head cheese, and the crunchy pickled vegetables.

Still missing the aromatic and pungent “green” elements I thought would put the dish over the top, I banked on finding what I needed at the Green City Market Wednesday morning. As often happens at the Green City Market, I struck gold. Tiny Greens had a gorgeous young basil mix at about three weeks, live in flats so it would be fantastically fresh and with both green and purple leaves to boot. Across the way, Growing Power had the most fascinating mustard green that was frilly like frisee, bet emerald green and with the spice and pungency of freshly dug horseradish. I believe it was called Golden Streaks, but it could easily have been a cultivar of Green Wave.  It was the perfect foil to add some bitterness and tie the Worcestershire to the vegetable portion of the dish, since horseradish is a major component in Worcestershire sauce. I knew the Worcestershire would work superbly with both the fish and the head cheese, but the vegetable components were more challenging. This mustard solved the problem in my mind, and as the dish came together later in the day, it was clear it was the perfect choice.

All told then, we have eight components. Seven, really, with the green items to finish the plate:

  • Worcestershire gel-poached arctic char
  • hog’s head cheese
  • Carolina gold rice & heirloom benne salad
  • lightly pickled cucumber and carrot salad
  • pickled green tomatoes
  • char skin chicharrones
  • Umeboshi plum puree
  • young basil & spicy mustard greens

The head cheese can be prepared up to a couple of weeks in advance, as can the green tomatoes. The char and lightly pickled vegetables can be prepared a few hours in advance at most, while the others should be prepared as close to service as possible. The chicharrones should be fried at the last minute, but the char skin can be dehydrated and stored in an airtight container with a silicone dessicant for up to a month in a cool, dark place without excessive humidity.

Here then, are the recipes in the order I would recommend preparing them in order to pull the dish together:

Pickled Green Tomatoes, aka Piccalilli:

For the first step rendering:

  • 1 ounce vegetable oil
  • 2# green tomatoes, 1/4” dice
  • 1/2 cup yellow onion, minced
  • 2 green bell peppers, small dice
  • 2 red bell peppers, small dice
  • 2 cups white vinegar

Place all ingredients in a non-reactive 4-quart saucepan, over medium heat. Bring to a boil, and simmer for thirty minutes, uncovered, stirring frequently. Drain and discard liquid. Turn vegetables into a 2-quart container with a tight-fitting lid.

For the second step, seasoning:

  • ¾ cup white vinegar
  • 3 Tablespoons kosher salt
  • 1-1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 1 Tablespoon celery seed
  • ¼ cup yellow mustard seed, whole
  • 4 fresh bay leaves

Add seasonings to the vegetables in the storage container and stir well. Do not cook. Cover tightly, label, and refrigerate. Allow to marinate for at least 48 hours before using. Will keep, tightly covered under refrigeration, up to two months.

Hog’s Head Cheese:

Note: we often hear at the restaurant that our head cheese is impossibly unctuous and rich, and some folks want to know how we do it. Well, here’s the recipe, but don’t expect the same results with just any hog’s head. Gunthorp Farm has a herd of hogs that has been in their family since the 19th century, when hogs were still bred for flavor and fat. Please don’t mistake fat for flavor – fat affects how the flavors spread on your tongue and the rate at which aromatics are released as you chew. Most of the flavor of any animal is in the lean. The quality and quantity of the fat, however, determine how those flavors are released and govern a large portion of the mouthfeel, in partnership with gelatin released during cooking. Greg and Lei’s hogs yield a head cheese so rich it will melt at a warm room temperature if left out too long, but this also means it will literally melt on your tongue! At that, you can use any hog’s head you can procure, but look for more traditional, fattier breeds that are cared for and fed well.

  • one hog’s head
  • water
  • 6 medium Spanish onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
  • 1 head garlic, peeled and crushed
  • 12 bay leaves if dried, 6 if fresh
  • 12 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 1 Tablespoon crushed red pepper
  • 3 tablespoons whole cloves
  • 3 tablespoons whole allspice berries
  • 3 Tablespoons coriander seeds
  • 1/4 cup whole black peppercorns
  • 1/2 cup good brandy (We use Christian Brothers VS)
  • 1 cup good Ruby Port (we use Warre’s)
  • 2 Tablespoons salt, approximately different hog’s heads yield different quantities of head cheese. Start with a little and season and reseason as the end of cooking nears.

In a 5-gallon stock pot, place the head snout up and cover with cold water. Place over high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and add the onions, garlic, thyme and bay. You may need to use a heavy iron skillet or other implement to keep the snout submerged during cooking. Simmer at a low boil for 5-6 hours, recovering with water as needed to accommodate evaporation, and skimming any scum that rises to the surface. After 4 hours, periodically check the head to see if the meat is fall-apart tender. Once it is, remove from heat and carefully drain off the liquid into a separate container. Place the hog’s head in a shallow pan to cool and allow to cool to room temperature for about an hour, but not more than that. In the mean time, strain the onions and other debris off the cooking liquid and return to the stove. You should have about 2-1/2 gallons. bring to a boil and maintain a rolling boil to reduce. Reduce by half to little more than a gallon and add the red pepper, cloves, allspice, and coriander. Continue to reduce to three quarts. In the mean time, pick apart all parts of the head, snout, and ears, and coarsely chop. Peel the tongue and slice. remove what is left of the brain, mash, and add to the pile of meat and fat scraps. At this point, discard the bones. Once you have three quarts of liquid, strain again and add the whole peppercorns, brandy, Port, and a couple tablespoons of kosher salt. Reduce again to approximately 2-1/2 quarts. Add the meat and fat scraps and return to a boil. Taste for seasoning and add more salt if need be. At this point, it is critical to stir often and well. Prepare three 8″x4″ terrines by spraying with food release spray and lining with plastic wrap. Once the mixture in the pot is thick and there is little liquid left trying to float to the top, correct seasoning one last time. You can add more cayenne, salt, or vinegar if you like. Once you are happy with the seasoning, transfer evenly between the terrines, pat plastic wrap carefully over the mixture to make it airtight, and allow to cool for one hour at room temperature. Refrigerate immediately after one hour has passed. It should be sliceable within four hours. It will freeze well up to six months, tightly wrapped. To unmold, submerge the pan in hot water for thirty seconds. Turn it over, and the head cheese will slide out. Wrap tightly and refrigerate until needed, up to two weeks.

Char Skin Chicharrones

  • skin from one side of wild Nunavit arctic char (this recipe works well with salmon)
  • 2 quarts corn oil
  • kosher salt

Place the char skin in a dehydrator on 130 degrees and dehydrate for 6-8 hours, until dry and brittle, but not so dry it will shatter. Using kitchen shears, cut across the filet into 1/2″ wide strips. At this point, you can store the skins in an airtight container with a silicone dessicant for up to one month in a cool, dark place without excessive humidity.  When ready to fry, put the oil in a much larger pot and heat over a high flame until just smoking. Working quickly and carefully, drop the fish skins into the hot oil about 8-10 at a time. They will very quickly curl up and puff. Once fully puffed, about 20-30 seconds, remove and drain on a paper towel, sprinkling lots of kosher salt over while still hot. Repeat to use up all the skin. Be careful not to heat the oil too high, or it will ignite. If you have a clip-on thermometer, heat to 450-500 degrees fahrenheit. Serve within two hours for optimal crispness.

Light Cucumber and Carrot Pickles

  • 6 slicing cucumbers, market fresh and unwaxed
  • 3 carrots
  • rind of watermelon, peeled
  • umeboshi plum vinegar, to taste
  • 2 tablespoons expeller-pressed unrefined sesame oil, untoasted

Peel the cucumbers free of approximately half their green skin. You want to retain some for color, but too much will be overly bitter. Using a julienne peeler or mandoline, carefully cut long, thin, noodle-like strips of the cucumber until you have about two cups. Scrub and peel the carrots and cut into noodles as you did the cucumbers until you have one cup. Peel the coarse outer skin of the watermelon and cut in the same manner until you have one cup of watermelon rind strips. Place all in a bowl and sprinkle with the ume vinegar, tasting frequently, until you have the flavor you are looking for. Be careful, ume vinegar is salty! I wound up using about three tablespoons. Cover tightly and place in the refrigerator to marinate for up to three hours. Before serving, drain the vegetables and squeeze out excess liquid. Sprinkle a little ume vinegar back over the vegetables and toss with the sesame oil. Serve at once.

Umeboshi Plum Puree

  • 6 ounces umeboshi plum juice
  • 4 ounces simple syrup
  • 1 tablespoon, approximately, Ultratex #8

In a blender, place the ume juice and set to puree. While running, gradually sprinkle Ultratex through the feed hole in the lid, keeping an eye on the juice. Once thick enough to form a bead on the plate rather than breaking like water, transfer to a plastic squeeze bottle or small pitcher, cover, and refrigerate until needed.

Worcestershire Gel-poached Nunavit Arctic Char

  • 2 pounds wild Nunavit arctic char, skinned
  • 800 milligrams Worchestershire sauce
  • 800 milligrams filtered or distilled water, at room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 18 grams Gellan type F
  • 3 grams Gellan type LT-100

Bone the char and cut into filets 3/4 inch wide. Cut filets cross-wise into approximately 3/4 inch blocks. Place in a shallow pan on waxed paper and refrigerate, uncovered, while you make the gel. Note: if you are butchering the char in advance, cover tightly with plastic wrap to avoid mingling flavors in the refrigerator. Uncover, pat dry, and return to refigerator 15-20 minutes before using. You want well-chilled, dry filets. In two separate non-reactive saucepans, place the water and the Worcestershire. Place the Worcestershire over a low flame and bring to a boil. Before heating the water, combine the salt, sugar, and gellans. Using a hand-held blender, sprinkle this dry mixture over the water while blitzing with the hand-held blender to assure all gellan is mixed in and there are no lumps. Place the water/gellan mixture over medium heat and bring to a boil, stirring contantly. The mixture will be very thick and pasty while cool, and thin during heating. Once boiling, whisk constantly while boiling three minutes. By this time the Worcestershire is also boiling. Increase its heat and bring to a rolling boil. Quickly and carefully pour the boiling gellan liquid into the boiling Worcestershire. Reduce heat to maintain the boil at a medium. Some scum will surface. Push it to the side, skimming it only if you must to make room to dip the char pieces. Using toothpicks, pierce each char filet and work like dipping lollipops. Quickly dip the char pieces in and out of the hot liquid. the first dip, maintain for fifteen seconds. Remove and dip twice more, five seconds each. Dab off any excess droplets hanging from the char but be careful not to damage the coating, which is very delicate at this stage. Hold each piece in the air for a few seconds to let the gel set slightly before placing in a chilled shallow pan lined with waxed paper. Leave the toothpicks in; they can be removed once the gel is completely set. Repeat until all char has been poached. Refrigerate uncovered until the gel has set completely, about fifteen minutes. Remove toothpicks, cover in plastic wrap, and refrigerate until needed.

Carolina Gold Rice & Heirloom Benne Salad

  • 8 ounces benne seeds
  • 2 cups Carolina gold rice
  • 3 cups cold water, plus more for finger bowl
  • umeboshi plum vinegar, to taste

In a 350 degree oven on a cookie sheet, toast benne seeds fifteen minutes, until aromatic and nutty. Cool to room temperature. Place gold rice and water in a small saucepan with a tight lid. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and cover. Cook for twenty minutes. Check to see if nearly all water has been absorbed. If so, turn of heat and leave covered to steam another fifteen minutes. Turn out onto a shallow tray and using a spatula, turn the rice over and over to cool, sprinkling and seasoning with ume vinegar as you go. Taste frequently to avoid overseasoning. Once cool enough to handle, knead for a moment until the rice begins to stick to itself very well, but maintains a distinctive shape and grain. Basically, you are making a variation on sushi rice. Once nice and sticky, fill a finger bowl with cold water and sprinkle in some vinegar. Use it to dip and wash your hands in between shaping the rice balls. Grab two-tablespoon-sized palm fulls of rice and shape by cupping your hand around the rice and pressing in with your other index and forefinger. Press into an oblong shape and roll in toasted benne seeds. Serve at once.

To assemble:

  • Young green and opal basils, at about three weeks
  • Young Green Streaks or Green Wave mustard greens

String the cucumber and carrot salad across the plate in an arc. Set the rice ball 2/3 the way up near the back of the plate, and off set with a 3/4″x3/4″ block of head cheese. Plate with two poached char pieces. Cut one in half, setting one half atop the head cheese and the other just behind and to the left of the rice ball. Dot the top left and bottom right with a few pieces of piccalilli. Place the whole, unsliced piece of char just in front of the rice ball. Fill in gaps with 3-4 pieces basil and 3-4 shards mustard greens. Place 2-3 strips char skin chicharrones about, and dot the plate with the umeboshi plum puree.