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May, 2012

Ingredient Challenge: Kale and Honeydew Melon

By Dennis Linden

Joseph Martin, Executive Chef at STAPLES Center and Nokia Theatre L.A. Live for Levy Restaurants, has now placed the bar so high with his version of this personal favorite that I have decided to retire my taste-test luncheon ritual.

Chef Joseph Martin, Executive Chef at STAPLES Center and Nokia Theatre L.A. Live for Levy Restaurants

This month’s Guest Chef uses his challenge ingredients to elevate the fish taco to new heights of flavor with a fun recipe that is truly a lunch-changing experience! Admittedly, fish tacos are my go-to dish more often than not when it is offered on a midday meal menu. The dish has become a kind of culinary benchmark for me; if the restaurant can do a good fish taco, then I will probably be back. Over the years, I have tasted the good, the bad and the ugly. Joseph Martin, Executive Chef at STAPLES Center and Nokia Theatre L.A. Live for Levy Restaurants, has now placed the bar so high with his version of this personal favorite that I have decided to retire my taste-test luncheon ritual.

Of course, Chef Joseph’s choice of mahi-mahi over the usual cod, tilapia or halibut, starts this recipe off on the right palette, so to speak. A light seasoning of salt and pepper is all this tasty fish needs. Plus, grilling also gives this recipe a healthy advantage over the all too common battered, deep-fried approach. However, the real fun begins with three easy-to-prepare components that Chef Joseph layers over the mahi-mahi. First a simple, yet distinctive slaw, followed by a refreshing fruit salsa and crowned with a decadently delicious Chile Lime Crema that really makes this dish come alive with an orchestra of complementary flavors. Finally, the perfect fish taco!

Kale

As first cousins in the Brassica family of veggies that includes Cauliflower, Broccoli and Brussels Sprouts, shredded Kale and Cabbage are perfectly matched slaw ingredients. The two create a pleasing visual and textural contrast; the thick but leafy feel to the dark green kale juxtaposed to the firm crispness of the light green cabbage. Kale has such a distinctive taste compared to all other leafy greens. There is a slight tang to the lettuce that is deliciously enhanced by a dollop of Chef Joseph’s luscious crema, which bonds the two ingredients with creamy goodness. This crema makes a second appearance further into the recipe and this article; in this case, there is no such thing as too much of a good thing--or crema!

Kale is one of those natural superfoods that should be included in one’s diet at least a few times a week. The leafy green is packed with some 45 identifiable flavonoids that contribute to good health in more ways than can be listed here. To name just a few, research shows kale having cholesterol-lowering benefits and nutrients essential for good eyesight; kale has been proven to have a hand in lowering the risk of five specific types of cancer as well as well as having anti-inflammatory qualities. One bite of Chef Joseph’s tasty taco is all the incentive I need to become a fan of this vegetable, but it’s nice to know that good health can taste so good!

The chef’s version of Pico de Gallo (salsa) is a harmony of many of my favorite flavors. The salsa stars bittersweet tomatillo and sugar sweet honeydew that is laced with the mild heat of a serrano pepper, garlic, lemon, onion and cilantro. Without the melon, I think this would be just another good salsa. The honeydew, as its name indicates, has the highest natural sugar content of all melon varieties. This recipe depends on that sweetness to complete the taste contrast and compatibility of the chef’s salsa with the fish, slaw and crema flavors.

Honeydew

Melons are usually harvested in the very early stages of ripening maturity to allow for the time it takes the fruit to travel the field to fork distribution pipeline. At store level, the honeydew is one of the easiest varieties to judge for ripeness. You should be able to hear a very soft rattle when you shake them near your ear. As the interior fruit ripens, the seeds will loosen enough to rattle against each other, signaling the guarantee of juicy ripe fruit inside.

If you are unsure, or hard of hearing, take advantage of the fact that Honeydews are one of the few melons that will ripen after being picked. Just store the melon in a sealed container with a couple of apples, at room temperature, in a cool, dry place for a few days. Of course, if the melon was harvested too early, it will not ripen any further; here is where the artistry of the grower’s expertise comes into play. It’s something we consumers take for granted. The month of May brings on the first volume of domestic melon crops of the summer season. So, the fruit offered at retail will have a good “shake” at being ripe!

The crowning component of Chef Joseph’s recipe is his Chile Lime Crema, which was also used to bind the slaw. This crema is, dare I say it, the crème de la crème of crema! Sorry. This was such a wonderfully tasty sauce that I made a second batch to fill the large squeeze bottle used to squiggle the wavy lines called for in this recipe. That bottle has since been squeezed on a few sandwiches, tossed in a spinach salad, and even served as a dip for artichokes. I should add that my definition of “squeeze” is closer in the accepted description of “slather” due to the deliciousness factor here.

Like the rest of the components of this dish, Chef Joseph’s crema is a seemingly simple sour cream based sauce. Again, most of the fresh ingredients are those expected in a recipe with the word “Baja” in its name. The unexpected flavor comes from the addition of a single odd spice to the mix. Paprika is a very rich seasoning that definitely deepens the taste of this creamy blend touched with lime, chile powder, cilantro and fresh garlic. Being a big paprika fan, I admit to measuring out a bit more of this spice than the recipe called for when I spotted Chef Joseph’s suggestion to adjust seasonings to taste. That always means more paprika!

The whole package adds up to a five-star fish taco that has ended a long-time quest for the best by this writer, who must now look for another “go-to” favorite for his lunchtime judgment. Although, there are two other components not listed in Chef Joseph’s recipe that I found paired nicely with this dish -- a sunny deck and a tall micro brew. ‘Tis the season!

Baja Fish Tacos
Serving size: 3 tacos


Baja Fish Tacos

Ingredients:
6 ounces Mahi-mahi - 3 pieces total, cut into 2-ounce pieces
Chile Lime Crema, place in squeeze bottle (see recipe below)
2 ounces each Green Cabbage and Kale, shredded and tossed to a slaw mix <1 & 2>*
2 ounces Honeydew-Tomatillo Salsa (see recipe)
3 corn Tortillas - 4 inch size (option, use 2 for each taco, 6 total)
2 Lime slices, small Chili Peppers, Cilantro springs (garnish)

Fish Preparation & Final Assembly:

  • Season with salt and pepper and grill fish pieces- cook to medium
  • Heat tortillas on griddle to warm.
  • Mix the shredded cabbage and kale with 1 teaspoon of Chile Lime Crema, salt and pepper to taste.
  • Order of assembly should be: tortilla, fish, kale slaw, honeydew salsa.
  • Draw curvy lines of Chili Lime Crema over the finished taco ingredients using the squeeze bottle.
  • Garnish with lime slices, a few peppers and sprigs of cilantro.

Chili Lime Crema

Ingredients

1 teaspoon Ancho Powder
16 ounces Sour Cream
1 Tablespoon Cilantro, fine chopped
1 Tablespoon Parsley, fine chopped
1 Lime, juiced
1 Lime Zest
2 teaspoons Minced Garlic
1 teaspoon Paprika
Kosher salt to taste

Preparation:
Blend ancho powder, lime juice and half of the cilantro. Combine with the rest of the ingredients in a bowl and mix thoroughly with a whisk. Adjust seasonings to taste.

Honeydew Pico de Gallo Ingrdients :
10 ounces Tomatillos, diced
3 ounces Yellow Onion, diced
1 Tablespoon Cilantro, chopped
1 cup ripe Honeydew Melon, diced
1 Tbsp. Serrano Pepper, diced
1 Tablespoon Lemon Juice
1 teaspoon Minced Garlic
Salt and Pepper to taste

Preparation:

Combine all ingredients in a bowl, chill for 30 minutes in the refrigerator before plating.