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Firebox Meals Forged With Seasonal Bounty Of Soil And Sea
Jason Collin and Matt Brodeur, chefs at Firebox Restaurant in Hartford, don't have far to go to find just-picked seasonal produce. Twice a week, they can walk to an enclosed grassy area next door to the restaurant and visit the farmers' market at Billings Forge on Broad Street.
On Mondays, sous chef Brodeur creates the Market Monday menu inspired by shopping the food stands. The four-course meal ($35) celebrates local ingredients, including seafood, meat, cheeses, herbs and honey.
"It's designed for foodies," says general manager Dan Meiser. "It's chef-driven."
The special menu, which changes weekly, will continue throughout the growing season and into the winter, even when locally grown foods are less plentiful. Planning ahead, executive chef Collin is stockpiling summer's bounty. He put up hundreds of jars of strawberry preserves during the native berry season and is pickling vegetables as they come into season.
The extra work to preserve seasonal foods is just part of Collin's commitment to bring local ingredients into his kitchen whenever possible. "I like working with unique things and with unique people," he says. "I'm fully committed to the menu being in tandem with local farmers."
He also likes building relationships with producers, such as Nunzio Corsino of Four Mile River Farm in Old Lyme, which supplies the restaurant with lamb. Collin finds the hour-plus drive to the Stonington docks to buy fish right off the boats time well spent. One such visit to Gambardella's Wholesale Fish produced a signature dish on the summer menu: Filet of Stonington Fluke with Grape Tomato Vinaigrette, Crispy Green Beans and Summer Creamed Corn.
To ensure freshness, Collin buys the fish whole and cleans and fillets it in the restaurant kitchen. His Thursday trips to the Billings Forge market inspired the dressing and vegetables for the dish.
"I go open-minded and don't make any decisions until I see what's nice," says Collin, who last week picked up native cantaloupes for a salad of melon, roasted peas, red onions and a savory-infused oil dressing.
The fluke entree is a mix of textures and colors. The fish is pan-seared and topped with a simple vinaigrette. The creamed corn, a summer comfort food, is a rich counterpart to the lean fish, while the fried string beans add a crispy bite to the dish.
If fluke is unavailable — and it is not a staple fish in markets — substitute halibut, flounder or sole.
Use a hot, hot pan, preferably a cast-iron skillet, liberally coated with a high-smoking-point oil such as canola or peanut, for searing the fish.
Rinse the green beans, but do not dry thoroughly. The flour will stick to the beans more evenly if they are damp. Also, dipping the beans in beaten egg white produces a crisper texture.
The more yellow the corn, the starchier the kernels to thicken the creamed corn, Collin says. His recipe does not contain added cream. Butter swirled into the mixture just before serving makes the dish "taste just like corn on the cob."
SEARED FLUKE WITH CREAMED CORN, CRISPY GREEN BEANS AND TOMATOES IN VINAIGRETTE • 2 (6-ounce) pieces fluke (summer flounder) or any other flaky flat fish
• 15-20 green beans
• 1/4 cup flour
• 3 egg whites
• 1 cup fine bread crumbs
• 3 ears corn
• 1 tablespoon butter
• 1 teaspoon chives (or your favorite herb with corn)
• 10 cherry tomatoes
• 1-1/2 tablespoons olive oil
• 1-1/2 tablespoons canola oil
• 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
• 1/2 shallot, finely chopped
• Salt and pepper
• Canola oil for deep frying and for cooking the fish
To fry the beans, put a couple of inches of canola oil in a deep-sided pot with a thermometer. Heat oil over medium heat to 350 degrees.
Stem and wash the green beans (allow the beans to stay a little wet). Put the flour, egg whites and bread crumbs in separate bowls. Whip the egg white slightly to make thinner in consistency. Toss the beans in the flour, then the egg whites and finally the bread crumbs. Set aside.
Shuck the corn, then shave the kernels from the cobs. Put half of the kernels in a blender, and purée. When the corn is smooth, strain through a fine strainer and set aside. (If you don't have a strainer or sieve, it's OK to skip this step.) Put the rest of the corn in a pot with a little water and salt, and bring to a boil, allowing the water to evaporate a little. When the corn is tender, add the puréed corn, and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the corn is thickened and about to boil. At this point, add the butter, chives and salt to taste, and keep warm.
To make the tomatoes in vinaigrette, thoroughly blend the olive and canola oils, red wine vinegar and shallots. Stir in the tomatoes, and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Heat a heavy-bottom pan such as a cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat until very hot. Season the fish with salt and pepper; add a little canola oil to the pan; and place the fish in the pan. Cook the fish until it gets a nice brown crust. Turn the fish over, and cook just until it's firm.
To finish the dish, drop the beans into the hot oil, and fry for about 1 minute or until golden brown and crispy. Drain, and salt them while they're hot.
To serve, put the creamed corn on the plate first, the fish on top of the corn and the crispy beans next to the fish. Pour a little of the vinaigrette over the fish, and scatter a few tomatoes on the plate. Serves 2.
Firebox Restaurant is at 539 Broad St., Hartford. Telephone: 860-246-1222. Website: www.fireboxrestaurant.com.