"When I come up with a recipe, nothing is arbitrary at all. There has to be varying levels of flavor intensity. And of course, presentation is important and texture is important," says David Hagedorn, head chef of Trumpets in Washington, D.C., which specializes in "updated American cooking."
Though these may sound like basic tenets, says Hagedorn, there are plenty of cooks out there who pay them little heed. "I was having dinner out with another chef one evening, and we had crabcakes crusted in cornmeal and blueberries. Why would anyone put blueberries in a crab cake?" he asks with obvious irritation. "For what reason?" The overuse of cornmeal similarly invokes his ire. "Blue cornmeal is all the rage, and I use it too, but when I do, I use a lot of flour and very little cornmeal," he says. "That's because cornmeal is gritty, and its texture is unpleasant, especially juxtaposed with scallops or calamari--it gives your mouth the sensation that you're eating sand."
Hagedorn started cooking as a boy and was hosting dinner parties in high school. As a sophomore at Georgetown University, he bluffed his way into a job as cook for a well-heeled Washington couple. "I told them I had studied in France (though it wasn't cooking), and they asked me to come cook them a meal." His roasted veal and seared vegetables went over well, he recalls, but then they asked him to make applesauce for dessert. "I had no idea how to make applesauce, and there were no recipes in any of the cookbooks I had there. So I peeled and grated the apples and they turned brown immediately. I knew I was in trouble." Out of desperation, he grated some orange and lemon rind, threw in some cinnamon, spooned the mixture into two porcelain dishes, then floated heavy cream on top to hide the browned apples. "I sat there waiting to be fired. Then they called me in and said the applesauce was absolutely lovely and very refreshing." He was hired on the spot.
The summer relish recipe he shares below is one that has proved a hit with Trumpets patrons. "When it's 90 degrees outside, who wants to be eating Hollandaise sauce?" he asks.
True to the Hagedorn credo, each ingredient has been carefully considered. "I included red and yellow peppers because they have the same color value, and the citrus, of course, is a proper accompaniment for fish. The avocado is seasonal, a summer thing, and it has a soft texture, compared to the crunch of the pepper and the chunks of grapefruit. At the same time, you have different levels of heat intensity--the cool, refreshing grapefruit balanced by the heat of the jalapeno." The sugar helps balance the acidity of the grapefuit and lime juice.
"All these things should come together on your palate so that there's not one thing that's specifically discernible," he says. "You don't want anything overwhelming you with the first bite, and the finish should just be pleasant--not "Oh, it's hot," or "Oh, it's sweet"--but just pleasant."
Suggested wine: "I would recommend an East Coast, oak-aged dry white wine," says APL Space Department researcher Eric Fiore, who together with his parents operates Fiore Winery in Bel Air, Maryland. "Wines of the East tend to be and taste more acidic than those of the West," he explains. "The grapefruit in the recipe will leave a subtle acidic taste in your mouth, so the wine should react favorably; a wine that otherwise may taste acidic will taste less so when accompanied by this dish." He chose oak-aged wine over stainless steel-aged because "the oak will add smoky, nutty flavors that will favorably react with grilled fish."
Fiore, who serves as chair of the Maryland Wine and Grape Growers Association, says that the Fiore 1995 Chardonnay would be a fitting complement. "This wine has a very creamy, soft, slippery, buttery sensation followed by longer-lasting lemon and grapefruit tastes; it concludes with a smoky, vanilla aftertaste."
Section grapefruit carefully to remove all membrane. Cut avocados into 1/2-inch cubes and place in several cups of acidulated water (water plus several tablespoons of lime or lemon juice) and stir carefully to "clean" the cubes of their soft green outer flesh. Remove avocado cubes with a slotted spoon and set aside. Toss together all the other ingredients to mix well. Fold in delicate avocado cubes last. This light, citrus-y relish, a bed of couscous, and grilled asparagus or zucchini are excellent accompaniments for grilled fish, such as halibut, red snapper, or salmon.
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