As we speak I’m on a train in Switzerland from Lucerne to Lugano. Aside from seeing another part of the world, there’s been an additional benefit to this journey; I now know a little German. I’m pretty sure I can say “did he like his ice cream?” and “next stop Lugano”, two highly useful phrases if you ever find yourself around here.
But back to the point. I don’t have my head around the Lucerne culinary culture. Having eaten the following: some tasty slices of boiled brisket, a plate of bad Greek food; good gelato; decent Thai; a weird salad; and nouveau Chinese, I don’t have a clue about the Lucerne culinary style. They seem to be either comfortable with their food or striving for an identity. Which got me thinking of our house plants back home.
On our windowsill overlooking downtown Broadway, sit two clay pots, one planted with Thai Basil seeds, the other with Thai chili seeds. From the moment I got off the phone with the seed man, I envisioned two giant, lush plants from which I can snip fresh pods and leaves as desired and drop them in a pot of curry. Unfortunately, things haven’t worked out as planned. They’re both sprouting the same thing: inch-high weeds. Like the culinary scene of Lucerne, they’re unable or unwilling to bloom into something definably unique and of itself.
Juniper, too, is a fussy, under confident little bugger, halfway between a spice and an old raisin lost in the couch. As the necessary flavoring in gin, it’s an important spice, but it’s less comfortable in the kitchen. Most often chefs use juniper to flavor game: a few of the whole berries tossed into a marinade with a bottle of red wine and a leg of lamb.
But anything that’s primarily used for a cocktail is, as you might expect, usually too strong to cook with, and I find it undetectable and superfluous in said marinade. But as long as you’re careful, one can use juniper to an interesting effect. First, in order to taste it, you must grind the whole berries. From there you can season your meat with a very tiny pinch.
The main ingredient must be powerfully flavored in order to stand up to the spice. Game, lamb, and such, are perfect. From the fish family, salmon-fatty and sturdy-works nicely. Especially on a bed of mascarpone enriched polenta and garnished with vinegar-marinated rock shrimp. Juniper deserves to feel comfortable in its own skin. Next stop, Lucerne and my struggling little plants.
(NOTE: these little shrimp work very well on their own as a tapas with country bread, tossed with lentils and tomatoes, in a salad, etc. Don’t marinate them too long; the acids will transform them into tiny bullets.)
Salmon w/ Juniper and Polenta
1 cup instant polenta
3 cups water
large spoonful mascarpone
4 salmon fillets, skin off, about 6 oz each
¼ cup olive oil
¼ teaspoon ground juniper
Marinated Rock Shrimp (see Note)
kosher salt and pepper
- Add water to a medium pot and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Add the polenta in a thin stream, stirring or whisking constantly to make smooth. Reduce heat and simmer gently, stirring frequently until thickened but still pourable, Add water if necessary.
- Preheat oven to 400.
- Season the fish with juniper and salt.
- Heat the oil in a large pan over high heat. When nearly smoking, add the fish and cook without moving until browned, about 2 minutes. Flip, cook one minute and add to oven for about 3 or 4 minutes. Remove.
5. To serve, add the mascarpone to the polenta and stir until incorporated. Season with salt and pepper. Divide among 4 plates, top with salmon.
Marinated Rock Shrimp
½ cup olive oil
½ pound rock shrimp
5 or 6 thinly sliced small chilies
2 teaspoons chopped thyme
1 clove thinly sliced garlic
1 cup cider vinegar
salt and pepper
- Heat half the oil in a large pan over high heat. Season the shrimp with salt and pepper and throw into the pan. Cook, tossing, until done but not too brown, 3 or 4 minutes. Remove to a bowl.
- Add the chilies, thyme, and garlic. Saute briefly until fragrant then add to the shrimp. Pour in the vinegar, reduce by half and pour over shrimp. Top with remaining ¼ cup oil and let cool to room temperature. Season to taste. Serve immediately or marinate for up to an hour.