Sesame-Crusted Tuna on Arugula Salad

Much as I love to serve fish for dinner, I return to my weeks-old whining about the heat. How are we expected to endure an hour of 400-degree air in the kitchen, followed by several hours of still-not-cool temperatures, just to get a piece of protein on the table? We're not, is the answer. We make a salad -- any salad will do, but there are lots of nice ones here -- and call it a night. But we both know that gets old. At a certain point, we start craving something more.

Here, then, is an entree that won't blow the gasket on the delicate balance between the blazing outdoors and the "little engine that could" of an air conditioning system. It requires no braise, no long boil, but a quick flash-sear on a hot stovetop, followed by a rest in the fridge, while you set the table, stick your head in the freezer for a moment, and suck on an ice cube hoping for that sweet, sweet redemption known as fall.

We're talking about tuna, rubbed with wasabi and coated with a mix of black and white sesame seeds, seared until it develops a crust to hide that jewel-pink interior. I'm being totally serious when I say that this tuna would be good on just about anything. I served it on a bed of arugula, dressed in rice wine vinegar, a little soy sauce, and sesame oil. Leftovers were cut into rice and piled onto sourdough toast. If only there'd been more.

To incorporate more of the tasty stuff that redeems this awful season, set the tuna (chunks, slices, whatever) in a salad of butter lettuce, corn, small cucumbers, and chopped red bell pepper. If you have some or none of those vegetables, just make a salad from whatever you've got. Put some of this tuna in, and you've got a simple, substantial summer lunch.

And with this, dear friends, I depart for a much-needed vacation. You'll find me with my nose deep in a glass of zin -- I'm going to San Francisco and wine country, and I couldn't be more excited. Not to worry: I've got a couple posts in the pipeline, so even in my absence, NDP will still have the goods. I'll be back in a couple weeks, with pictures and stories and, hopefully, some good wine in tow. Adieu!

Sesame-Crusted Tuna on Arugula Salad inspired by a recipe from Jaden of Steamy Kitchen and a recipe from Epicurious serves 6

2-3 lbs tuna, about 3 large pieces 1-2 tablespoons wasabi paste 1 cup sesame seeds (I like a mix of black and white) salt and pepper vegetable oil

1/2 lb arugula 1/8 cup rice wine vinegar 2 tablespoons sesame oil 1 teaspoon soy sauce 1 teaspoon honey salt and pepper

Put sesame seeds in wide, shallow bowl. Blot tuna with paper towel until dry. Season with salt and pepper on all sides, then rub wasabi paste evenly over top, bottom, and sides of tuna pieces. Place each piece of tuna in the bowl of sesame seeds, one at a time, and coat all sides with the seeds.

Heat heavy-bottomed pan (not non-stick) over medium-high heat. Add 1 tablespoon vegetable oil. When pan is very hot and oil shimmers, place tuna in pan. It will spatter -- be careful! Cook tuna about 2 minutes on each side; white sesame seeds will have browned, but in testing one of the pieces with a sharp knife, you'll see that it's quite pink in the middle. You want it seared on the outside, rare within; please, don't overdo tuna; it doesn't like to stay on the heat too long. When it's cooked properly, transfer tuna to plate or cutting board to rest.

Combine ingredients for dressing, and drizzle over arugula. Toss to incorporate. Transfer arugula to a serving platter, reserving remaining dressing.

Using a very sharp knife, slice tuna against the grain on a bias into 1/2-inch slices. Keeping the slices of each piece of tuna together, transfer onto arugula, then use a knife or spoon to nudge them into a fan or domino pattern. Drizzle reserved dressing over tuna, and serve immediately. (If not serving promptly, store in fridge until ready to serve.)

Whole Fish Roasted in Salt Crust

There's a certain amount of risk involved in cooking. Many times, I spend all day prepping for a recipe that's a total clunker. I've shelled out lots of cash on "novelty" ingredients that end up being nothing special. And I've definitely made my share of rookie mistakes that, if I were the type of normal cook that makes something more than once, probably wouldn't happen nearly as often. Yes, D thinks I'm crazy. She'll never understand why I'd pass up chocolate chip cookies to try my hand at chocolate-dipped hazelnut shortbread. Or why, instead of making my tried and true recipe for lemon curd, I insist on blowing 2 whole meyer lemons on a whole-lemon tart that was so saccharine, so unpleasantly textured, I nearly threw it out. But such is the life of a blogger: constantly in search of the next internet-worthy recipe, making plenty of duds along the way.

So imagine my delight when my hard work actually paid off. This wasn't just any old success. On the contrary: it was a complete and total knockout.

I've been wanting to roast a whole fish for quite some time now. I'd been told it wasn't particularly difficult, but pfff -- it's a whole fish! With a tail! And eyeballs! And it's a whole fish. You get the point. But after a rough week at work, I decided hell! If other people can do it, why can't I? And thus began the most fearless, the most exciting, and by far the most successful adventure I've ever had in my kitchen.

I called my fishmonger midweek and reserved a 6.5-pound red snapper. When I came to pick it up, I took a look -- what a beaut! -- and asked him to scale and gut it for me. "You aren't, by any chance, cooking this in salt, are you?" He asked. Why yes, I was, I said. "Glad I asked: don't scale the fish. If you scale it, the salt leaches in and renders the fish inedibly salty. Scales protect your dinner." See why I love my fishmonger?

I picked it up and stuck it in my bag along with its accompanying bed of ice. I felt like I had a pet in tow. So did my officemate. When fishie and I got home, I cleared out a whole shelf in the fridge, stuck him in there to stay cool, and pulled out my measuring tape. My young person's apartment has a relatively small oven, and I didn't actually have a baking sheet large enough to fit the fish. Instead, I cobbled together a baking surface out of two smaller pans. I overlapped the two pans in the exact length I needed to fit the snapper, and guess what? That length was also exactly the width of my oven. Couldn't have worked out more perfectly.

I mixed some salt with... wait. "Some salt" really doesn't do it justice. I mixed SIX POUNDS of salt with a bunch of egg whites to form a sort of cakey mix that would adhere to the fish. I poured a third of it down on the pans, laid the fish on top, and proceeded to cover that fish with enough salt to clear last month's blizzard, eeeasy.

I left the fish in the fridge for a few hours until I was ready to cook it. About 1.5 hours before dinner, I preheated the oven to 450. I carefully tucked the two pans, with their fish-shaped salt cake, into the hot oven and sat on my hands for an hour crossing my fingers that everything would cook, that the fish wouldn't explode, and that it might -- *gulp!* -- even wind up tasty.

Our guests that night were adventurous types, happy to be my guinea pigs as I played around in the kitchen. And I'm proud to say I didn't let'em down. The fish, seasoned with absolutely nothing other than that salt crust, was soft and tender, luscious and buttery, an absolute pleasure to eat. The rest of the meal wasn't too shabby either, but that's a story for another time. It all starts with this recipe, simple enough to let the fish flavor sing, fussy enough to make your guests feel special. It can be scaled up or down; quantities and cooking times are below. If you're like me, and you've always wondered how salt-crust roasting is even possible, throw caution to the wind. After all, that's what cooking is all about.

Whole Fish Roasted in Salt Crust adapted from a recipe on Food52

1 whole fish, gutted but NOT scaled, head and tail intact 1 pound salt for every pound fish 1 egg white for every 1.5 pounds salt/fish, roughly lemon and/or parsley for serving, optional and really unnecessary

Preheat oven to 450.

Mix salt and egg whites until salt is cakey.

Pour 1/3 of salt down on baking tray to cover the whole area where the fish will be. Lay the fish down overtop, and pour and cake salt onto sides and top of fish to completely cover. If you don't have enough salt, leave the tail uncovered -- that's preferable to the head or the sides.

For a small (2-3 pound) fish, bake 20-30 minutes. For a 5 pound fish, 40-45. For a 6.5 pound doozie like mine, give it about 60 minutes.

Remove fish from oven and let rest 10 minutes. Take a hammer or a heavy metal spoon and tap crust in several places to break up. Remove crust and discard.

Slice along the jawline of the fish, and peel back the skin. It should come off pretty effortlessly. Use a knife and spatula to scoop out that first filet. Then remove the backbone, and take out the second filet. Please, whatever you do, don't forget to scoop out those precious cheeks -- both above the jawline, next to the (eeek!) eye, and below the jaw just above that initial spot where you cut. It's the sweetest, most succulent piece of the whole fish.

"Serve immediately" goes without saying, right?