As a gift from their honeymoon, our friends Laura and Geoff gave us a delightful box of unusual spices from Ambrosia, a spice and chocolate shop on Nantucket.
As Laura rightly knows, owning a spice and chocolate shop ranks even higher on my wish list than opening my own artisanal raddichio farm, so this was an excellent choice.
Laura has set forth the challenge that I should devise a recipe featuring each spice, and this month's feature is hibiscus.
Hibiscus, the vibrantly colored blossoms found on so many Hawaiian shirts, is noted for its tart, sour, tropical character.
It's similar to the powdered sumac used in Middle Eastern cooking to add zest in meat and fish dishes, though hibiscus is a bright purple-pink rather than smoky rust.
Since the hibiscus is meant to be the showcase of the recipe, I wanted to make sure its flavor really came through, so I paired it with filets of unassertive wild Alaskan halibut and a simple salsa.
Neither of my grandmothers is a huge fan of fish, my mom disliked preparing it at home for fear of the lingering aroma of low tide, and I am convinced that crustaceans are monstrously horrifying sea bugs, so seafood never really had a fair chance with me.
It took a long time and a lot of visits to sushi restaurants to acquire any taste for fish at all, but I do enjoy and appreciate it now.
In addition to mild flavor, white fish also tend to have a correspondingly mild aroma, so no need to worry about unwelcome odors (salmon always can be grilled on cedar planks outside).
These seasonings make redeeming seafood an easy task and the air of the unusual provided by a less common spice like hibiscus is sure to surprise guests. A delicate poach in simmering wine gently cooks the tender fish and adds sharp, acid brightness to underscore the flowery sting of hibiscus.
A quick, fruit-based salsa complements the existing notes and adds extra sweetness and heat to play in balance against the salty and sour. The end result is a dish so light, fresh and gently perfumed it could win over even the most impassioned icthyophobe.
Hibiscus halibut, mango kiwi salsa
Mango and kiwi can be intimidating if you don't know how to deal with them quickly. For mangos, slice the full, rounded "cheeks" straight off from either side, avoiding the hard core.
Then guide your knife around the curve of the stone to release the two remaining "ribs." Score the mango flesh all the way to (but not through) the skin in a cross-hatch pattern, then gently pull at the edges, inverting the curve and popping up perfect cubes of mango, ready to be sliced off.
For kiwis, bisect them through the central core, then scoop each hemisphere from its skin with a spoon.
1 cup dry white wine
2 teaspoons powdered hibiscus
2 4-ounce wild Alaskan halibut filets (or other mild white fish)
2 tablespoons butter
Sea salt and freshly cracked pepper, to taste
Mango kiwi salsa
1/2 red onion, finely diced
1 mango, peeled and diced
2 kiwi fruit, peeled and diced
1 jalapeno chile, seeded and diced
Juice of 1 lime
Prepare the salsa by combining all ingredients in a small bowl, chill while you prepare the fish.
Over medium heat, bring the wine to a simmer, then whisk in the hibiscus. The liquid will turn ruby red. Continue to simmer for about three minutes.
Add the fish to the pan, skin side down, and allow to simmer for about 5 minutes. Flip and cook 3-5 minutes more. The fish is done virtually as soon as the flesh becomes opaque.
145 F is food-safe, but (with the understanding that this increases the chance of food-born illness) I think most fish benefit from slight undercooking to preserve their moisture and delicacy. If retrieved from the pan at 140, it's likely the fish will reach 145 while resting. If you find it too rare, simmer the fish in the finished sauce for a few more minutes.
Remove the fish to a warmed plate and tent with foil, then increase the heat to medium high and simmer the cooking liquid, whisking often, until reduced by half. Whisk in the butter until completely melted and season with salt and pepper.
Arrange the filets on serving plates, topping with a generous spoonful of the buttery hibiscus sauce and a likewise heaping helping of salsa. Serve immediately.
GourmetGents is a blog written by James Pereira and Aaron Peterson of Montoursville.