This series is literally my favorite part of my job. Cooking and arguing and having commenters see through me in ways I hoped weren’t transparent — it’s pretty awesome. This week, we went a little more broad. We wanted to see what we could do if we loosened the reins a little. The category was “date night” with all that implies. I like to think we each made pretty successful dishes, while also leaving ourselves open to some hardcore sniping.
I’m too excited to give any more of an intro than that!
BLT Showdown — 1) Vince 2) Zach 3) Steve
Mac & Cheese Showdown — 1) Vince 2) (tie) Zach, Steve
Taco Showdown — 1) Steve 2) Zach 3) Vince
Winter Stew Showdown — 1) Zach 2) Steve 3) Vince
We’re giving three points to the winner and one to second place for each round, so as it stands, the score is:
STEVE’S MISOYAKI BUTTERFISH
If you’re cooking for a date, you want to have sex. And not just sex, but…like…super cool sex. Memorable sex. So my meal is completely slanted toward that:
- No cheese. I eat cheese as if I work for the cheddar lobby, but the truth is that no one feels sexy after eating a lot of cheese.
- No gluten. I love bread, I love pasta, do not @ me in the comments about how “If you have celiac, then fine but otherwise…” I get it. That said, gluten makes people feel bloated, gassy, and overfull. I seem to be particularly sensitive to those effects (no, goddammit, I’m not saying I have gluten sensitivity, I’m just saying…).
- No gut bombs. I wanted a meal that would feel light in the body — no beans, nothing super greasy.
- Easy to eat. No knives needed. No grand explanations. “Here’s your food, enjoy.”
Is this classic “Steve try-hard-ism”? Maybe, but I have fun with this stuff because I think about it. That’s the kick for me.
So, I made my all-time go to: Misoyaki Butterfish. I will never forget the first time I tasted this black cod (sablefish) preparation. I was in Hawaii, staying at Turtle Bay Resort for a travel story, and had free tickets to eat at the hotel’s acclaimed restaurant. The first night I was there, the chef pressured me into ordering a dish I’d never heard. I don’t usually order fish out at restaurants because it’s always dry or lacking flavor but this was… revelatory. Definitely one of the top five “first bites” I’ve ever had. I ate the same dish the next three nights.
Good Misoyaki Butterfish tastes buttery. It’s delicate, flaky, and has just a hint of miso flavor. But it requires a little planning.
Misoyaki is made of a combination of white miso paste, sake, mirin, and brown sugar. Most recipes, including the recipe shared by Roy Yamaguchi — who made the dish famous — call for a 1, 1, 1, 2 ratio. But I wouldn’t be Steve if I didn’t somehow think I could improve a star chef’s recipe.
Here’s my recipe:
- 1 cup white miso
- 1 cup sake
- 1 cup mirin
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon Sriracha
- 1/2 tablespoon soy sauce
- 10 paper thin pieces of shaved ginger
There’s still plenty of sugar in that for the top of the fish to crust up under a broiler, which is the whole point.
The next step is to burn off some of that alcohol by bringing the marinade to a boil. It’ll look like a caramel. Once it’s boiled and tightened a little, you let it cool. Now here’s the big kicker: in many famous misoyaki recipes, including the one I was taught, you let the fish marinade for 72 freaking hours. Last week, Top Chef’s Sheldon Simeon told me that he likes to do 12 hours or six — he thinks even 24 is too long. But I’d broken with Yamaguchi enough on the actual marinade, so I did his full three days.
**Big Ass Asterisk: Where I live, you only get sablefish from a real pro. Not Whole Foods, I mean a freaking proper fish market (where you will be charged roughly $20pp). You explain what you’re doing and you look at the fish to make sure it’s awesome. Assuming you’ve done all that, the fish is fatty enough and the marinade has enough sugar to make sure your fish stays impeccable.**
There is one downside to Misoyaki Butterfish: It’s hard to pair with. Rice is standard but exciting and hard to elevate. I’ve done it with black rice and enjoyed it, but it didn’t add much. I made some sticky rice, thinking that would be a nice touch but I abandoned it because I had a cool shaved mushroom starter served with mashed edamame and the pieces of fish were big. Do you hear that world? Steve Bramucci kept shit simple!
In the end, I sliced baby bok choi right down the spine and sauteed them in soy and chili sesame oil. Did I think, “Oh, with them sliced this thin, they wont require a knife!” Yes, because I’m a dork. I’m sure it would have been fine to keep them whole. I also toasted up some macadamia nuts.
There’s not much debate on how to cook this dish. You put it on a scorching pan covered in oil. I used 1/2 olive and 1/2 chili sesame but this doesn’t really matter because your fish is skin side down. What’s going to happen is that your skin will be burned to all hell, but protect the fish with a layer of fat.
When the fish is starting to look 2/3 cooked, you put the pan under a broiler and let it cook from the top down. It’ll get flecked with sugar crust spots. The first time two flakes of fish pull apart from one another, get that thing out of there.
The sauce was insanely simple. It was just the marinade, cooked down more, with more ginger, more soy, and more sriracha. Enough to notice all three, while keeping the original flavors.
Putting It All Together:
I plated the bok choi and the toasted macadamia nuts alongside the fish so that it could be pulled away from the meat and not run into the sauce, if my date so desired. I topped with a few sprigs of micro cilantro and a few scallions chopped with a goddamn razor blade to keep them thin. I also deep fried some very thin pieces of garlic for on top of the bok choi.
I spread the sauce across the plate, which probably wasn’t great because of the color, but I promise it looked redder IRL, and sprinkled the whole thing with toasted black sesame seeds. Lastly, I used the mandoline to get some paper thin raw ginger. To me, this really brought the dish together — it needed something to cut any sweetness. See how it looks kind of like a flower?
Yeah, I get it, total dork, but I will tell you this, dear reader: YUP.
VINCE ON STEVE’S PLATE:
I can’t lie, this is easily Steve’s most successful (looking) dish, on account of it doesn’t include, like, julienned prickly pear and a drizzle of fried crickets. Straight up, I’d eat that, and I’d probably blow you afterwards. That said, I do have a few criticisms. First of all, THREE DAYS of marinating? Who the hell wants to eat three-day-old fish? Not to mention, I hope your stove has a good hood on it, because if I cook fish (nasty, three-day old fish, no less) on a hot cast iron skillet on my stove, my whole apartment is going to smell like filthy sex way before my date arrives. Gross. Secondly, cook some god damned rice, you half-assed dilettante. If you can’t make exciting rice that’s on you.
Thirdly, sorry, I’ll say it: bok choi is stupid. It’s a stupid ingredient. Not only is it largely flavorless, it’s huge and dumb and hard to eat. I’m convinced bok choi was popularized by some immigrant Chinese misanthrope who just wanted to have a laugh watching some dumb white people try to jam an entire celery stalk-sized plant into their mouths. Like hey, you know what’d go great with this bowl of bite-sized bits of stir fried meat and veg? A flavorless mini tree the size of a baby’s forearm! Brilliant! F*ck bok choi and I said it with authority.
Fourthly, don’t think you’re not getting wedgied for “revelatory.”
Fifth and finally, you were correct in assuming that people would rightly shit on you for your gluten nonsense. Humans have been eating gluten for roughly eleventy trillion years and it’s never been a problem before. Now all of a sudden everyone has a sensitivity to it, which just so happens to coincide with the point at which when American farmers decided to dunk all our wheat in round-up. I’m not a bread scientist, but the timing seems to suggest that maybe it’s not the gluten, which is a stretchy protein, and maybe it’s the traces of the stuff that the WHO declared a “probable human carcinogen.” Which is a long way of saying that I use organic and/or imported non-glyphosate dunked flour for all my bread and pasta purposes. I bet even your aristocratic lady stomach could handle it, provided it’s not already upset from sleeping on a pea.
ZACH ON STEVE’S PLATE:
I agree with Vince, it’s missing a side. Maybe not a rice, but something. Maybe you could have whipped up some yellow ramen and slivered the bok choi into that with some nice spice and aromatics to match the fish marinade. As it stands it kinda looks like a course, not a meal. I get that you were going for light, but at the end of the day it’s a piece of fish with a little green. Or maybe you want to leave them hungry???
The only other question I’m left with is the over-cooking. Generally, searing off the skin you could easily be close enough to done without broiling it too. Did you start with room temp fish or straight out of the fridge? If your fish is already flaking in the pan, it’s over done by the time you serve and eat it. But I like things rare.
VINCE’S SHRIMP PASTA
Knowing Zach and Steve, but especially Steve, they’ll probably make something obnoxiously elaborate for this challenge. “You’re trying to impress, gotta go all out!” But let me both caution you and justify my own entry: as with all romantic gestures, there’s a fine line between “aw, that’s so sweet” and “hey settle down, psycho.”
Like, you want nice food that’s aesthetically pleasing, but also not too fussy. Make it look like you just whipped something up. Make it seem like that’s something you do. Try to exude competence, not desperation.
So anyway, I chose a very simple shrimp pasta dish. Shrimp is a nice balance between decadent and not too heavy, it’s simple and colorful, and you don’t need to be a huge carnivore to enjoy it. Meanwhile, home made pasta tells your date “I know how to work a piece of dough, gnome sayin’?”
Also, you know, it tastes good.
Cream (1/4 cup?)
Crushed red pepper (Pinch)
Garlic (5-6 cloves, minced, crushed, or slivered — I prefer slivered)
Tomatoes (2, cut into cubes)
Pancetta, cubed (handful)
White wine for deglazing
Flat-leaf parsley (for garnish)
butter, salt, pepper
Ever make pasta before? It’s probably not as hard as you think. There are lots of dough recipes online, but here’s mine:
3 egg yolks
2 cups flour (I use one cup 00 flour and one cup semolina but whatever is fine)
3/4 teaspoon salt
If you don’t have a food processor, you can use the old “well method.” I use my food processor because it’s easy. Just put your flour and salt in there, pulse it a few times, then pour in your beaten eggs and egg yolks mixture and pulse a few more until it becomes something like a ball. If it’s too sticky to knead, add a little more flour. If it’s not sticking together, add a few drops of water. Knead it a little (not too much) on your floured cutting board, then (if you have time) let it rest in a covered bowl for about 20 minutes. After that, cut your dough ball in fourths and start putting it through your machine.
Hey! You know how people think you can either buy an expensive-ass electric pasta machine or mixer with pasta attachment, or hand crank it? Those aren’t the only choices! I bought an electric motor for my hand-me-down pasta machine for about $50. Nothing wrong with hand cranking, but for me $50 and one extra component was worth it to be able to keep both hands on the dough. You know, really guide that dough, give it a strong hand.
Aaaanyway. I like my fettucine noodles (which I’m making for this) at a thickness of 4-5 (I go down to 6-7 for ravioli or stuffed pasta). If you don’t have a pasta machine, you can just roll out your dough with a rolling pin and hand cut it. That’s fine too, it’ll just look rustic as f*ck. Pair with flannel and some hairy forearms.
You can always finish your noodles earlier that day or the day before and keep them in the fridge.
Devein Your Shrimp.
Should go without saying, but I’m mentioning it anyway. I feel like the Asian method with the skewer and potato starch works best, but it doesn’t really matter as long as you don’t serve your date shrimp that are full of shrimp shit. Your date probably hates shit eating, unless it’s Steve’s mom, in which case why are you cooking her dinner?
I’m all about a little texture in my pasta, and I’m trying to disqualify anyone who’s going to whine about carbs or gluten as a potential mate. So I take a french roll, turn it into crumbs in the food processor, then toast them in butter. Not a ton, just enough for a crunchy little garnish.
This part’s even easier. First I toss my cubed pancetta into a sauce pan. Get it nice and brown, then remove the pancetta with a slotted spoon and set aside. Pour off most of the fat and try not to eat all your pancetta while you’re cooking, fatty. That part’s hard.
Next, add your crushed red pepper (spices always seem to taste better when you let them cook in the oil for a few seconds). After that, add your tomatoes and garlic. Which to add first?? This time, I did tomatoes first, to make sure I didn’t burn the garlic, but I think if I was doing it over again, I’d go garlic first, for 30 seconds or so, then tomatoes. It would’ve been nice to retain a little more body on the fresh tomatoes. But they also taste a little sweeter with more of a cook on them, so either or.
After your tomatoes and garlic cook a little, deglaze with some white wine. Simmer off your wine and then add back in the pancetta and a little cream. Again, we’re talking like a quarter cup of cream, it’s not going to be heavy. Turn down the burner to lowest heat.
At this point you could add the shrimp and let them poach. OR, you can do what I did, and sear them in a really hot pan to get a little char on the outside (still raw in the middle) and set them aside. I cooked the pasta in salted, boiling water until not quite cooked. I added my pasta to finish cooking in the sauce, and the shrimp to finish poaching in the sauce with the noodles.
Let that go for a few more minutes to finish poaching the shrimp. Plate it up, and garnish with the parsley and toasted bread crumbs.
That’s it. Not too fancy, just simple and home made and tasty, and hopefully it looks like you know what you’re doing. …in bed. Could it be less heavy? I guess so. But hey, I cook like my grandma, not like some Asian fusion gringo in a trilby.
STEVE ON VINCE’S PLATE:
This is why I love this game: Would I eat this? A million times, yes. I’d eat it and love it and think you were dreamy. But this is date night and you came with pasta topped with bread! Where’s the color? Would it have killed you to chop some parsley? Also, what the hell is up with your white flour on white flour? You put bread crumbs on your mac, too. Save that noise. Last, I’ve read you somewhere saying that you don’t like cheese with shellfish. I do. You already have cream in there, why hold back now? You didn’t want a little parm-bite? You tepid glass of milk.
TL;DR: I would eat this for days, but you probably didn’t get to do butt stuff.
ZACH ON VINCE’S PLATE:
Solid pasta skills. Also such a good call on getting the motor for the pasta machine. Nice skills with the shrimp as well. For me this dish just seems to be very one note. Not that it doesn’t sound tasty — but more like something you whip up for your bro on a rainy day. It just isn’t popping for me. It sounds heavy — pancetta + butter + cream + pasta + bread. I need a nap now. I think there are some opportunities to amp up flavor profiles here. The bread crumbs just toasted off in butter seems to add to the heaviness. Why not add a little citrus, garlic, and maybe parsley (at the very least for color). It’d also be nice to see more on the plate color wise and in the sauce. Cream and tomato with garlic needs something to balance it out — green onion, parsley, chard, maybe artichokes … something to make it pop!
ZACH’S TASTING MENU
I’m at a bit of an advantage here. I’ve been with my wife for 13 years. I know what she likes and how she likes it (heeyyy-ohhhh). I’m also deep in the food world, so I like trying new things and changing it up a bit with old classics. But that only goes so far. So lately I’ve been playing around with style and presentation — tapping into that artistic side, you could say. I wanted to make something that I know is delicious and present it in a way that’s interesting and a little different.
Sharing plates is a normal part of most cuisines and always fun on a date. So I’ve created a plate that down the center has shareable starters and then is surrounded by your own meal with dessert. It’s a good place to start conversations about places we’ve been, meals we’ve had, and where we want to go next. Like all good dinners, it’s meant to be a conversation starter. It goes a little something like this …
A welcome Oyster Shooter with Fin de Claire oysters from France, topped with homemade cocktail sauce containing low-sugar ketchup, creamed horseradish, and fresh lemon juice. The oysters are topped with fresh ginger-infused Russian vodka.
Next is a Small Citrus Salad reminiscent of NOMA’s famous treat. Blood oranges and lime are topped with spicy pedals of Dianthus and a Lavender bloom. Portuguese Extra Virgin Olive Oil is drizzled over the fruit and Birch Smoked Sea Salt is generously applied (this takes the tartness out of the lime wonderfully by the way).
At the bottom we have a Salmon Tartar El Bulli style. Fatty Salmon Belly is diced finely and mixed with creamed avocado, Dijon Mustard, and finely diced leek. This is topped with Salmon Roe and Diakon Cress. It’s served with a homemade Parmesan Crisp made from 48-month old cheese.
Now before you come @ me bro in the comments, the parmesan crisp adds a salty, crunchy, and almost brine-y complexity to the fatty fish that works wonders. Then you add in the pop of the salmon roe, and it’s like a crazy high-end salmon melt.
For the main course we have a seared Petit Filet of Beef with fresh cracked Tellicherry black peppercorns and sea salt. The beef has been Salt Moss aged in Ireland for 35 days (expect to hear a lot about this new aging process from Ireland this year). The steaks were finished in a butter, garlic, star anise, all spice, and fresh rosemary wash.
On the side there’s a Braised Coconut Cream Spinach. The spinach is cooked with a small yellow onion, a little vegetable broth, and Thai Red Curry paste. The spinach is then braised with coconut milk that’s been steeped with lime leaves, star anise, and orange rind. The spinach is topped with ground peanuts and cashews which have been toasted in smoked brown cane sugar.
Lastly, we have a sweet and savory dessert of Stilton with Walnuts and Forest Honey. The cheese is drizzled with forest honey and served on a Spanish orange and olive oil infused cracker.
A Couple of Notes:
I went for light foods here. Low carbs, small servings, and very fresh. You don’t want to be a in a pasta or butter coma after you finish dinner if you’re on a date.
Serving both cold and warm dishes on a single plate is not wise. I got around this particular conundrum by using slate and fire. I have a small kitchen torch and blasted the slate where the steak and spinach sat for about 10-15 seconds. That warmed up that spot enough to keep those components warm, but didn’t spread the heat out to other parts of the stone. So the tartar next to that spinach remained very cold. Science!
Having someone over for dinner should be fun. And several of these components are a little time consuming. I make the cocktail sauce, infused vodka, tartar, and steeped coconut milk all in advance and let it settle. That way, the only dishes you’re cooking live are the steaks, the spinach, and the cutting of the fruit. Everything else is just plating. All in all it should take 20ish minutes from start to finish (depending on your oyster schucking abilities), and maybe two hours of prep time. This also means the cooking smells in your house are going to be Thai curry, lime leaves, star anise, and coconut with searing steak wafting in between.
Even though it wasn’t required, I served this meal with a nice Rioja Tempranillo from Spain that pairs well with red meat, spice, and dark and funky cheeses. And lastly, I made a new cocktail as a digestif because I’m not a monster and every good meal should end with a classic cocktail.
[Jesus, Zach, this is outside the bounds of the competition… but I’d like to see where you’re going with this. — Ed]
I gently muddled fresh rosemary into some Grenadine. Then added some Gran Reserva Osborne Brandy, fresh lemon juice, and about three dashes of Angostura Bitters. Top that with ice and gently shake for about 15 seconds in a Boston Shaker. Double strain that into a rocks glass that’s been chilled and filled with one large ice cube. Then that’s topped with very dry Champagne and garnished with a fresh rosemary sprig. I call it the Thanks Obama!
[Zach did his dish on Jan 20th, but Vince and Steve lagged. — ed]
VINCE ON ZACH’S PLATE:
What did this take, like seven hours? I would never @ you about your parmesan crisp, bro, that looked bomb. Though I probably didn’t need to know the name of the farmer who grew your peppercorns. That being said, I can’t find fault with much beyond the general over-elaborateness and your overdressed oysters (too much sauce, man). It’s just not exactly what I think of as a “date night meal.” This is more of a spend-all-day-preparing-decadent-treats-for-your-wife-and-then-eat-them-off-each-other-during-elaborate-sex-play meal. Nine And A Half Weeks ass food. I like to imagine the floor was covered with torn bustles and powdered wigs and monogrammed hankies covered in splooge and salmon roe. I like the bamboo place mats though.
STEVE ON ZACH’S PLATE:
This is the meal of a wonderful, experienced cook who has two kids, going up against two unmarried guys. Zach cooked everything. Been awhile since you and the wife had some alone time, eh Zach?
This all looks awesome, but it reads like someone who needed an editor (*DRAMATIC STAGE WINK*). It’s just… a lot. And I’m confused and overwhelmed and there’s no sauce for the steak so I’ll probably leave a bit or two of that behind, alone and melancholy while we move on to cheese and honey as foreplay.
With all that said, the salmon tartar is probably the most refined dish we’ve ever had in this competition. I wouldn’t balk at paying 22 bucks just for that. I’m sure you had awesome married-people sex.