Monday, August 3, 2015

Chef Sakalis: Rosewood, Abu Dhabi



    Introduction: We all like to eat out in Abu Dhabi, and probably do it more often that we did before we arrived here in the UAE.  For those odd times when we feel like testing our own kitchen skills, this series meets those who know the kitchen best, the city's prominent chefs, as we learn some impressive, yet easy(ish) dishes that we can try to cook on our own.

"It is not easy to find uncomplicated, delicious, healthy food in Abu Dhabi", remarks the Rosewood's Greek head chef, Harris Sakalis, as he gently flips a small piece of perfectly seared hammour.  It is a late afternoon and the restaurant's kitchen has just been cleaned from top to bottom, yet we have decided to dirty it up again.  He has already shown me how he makes his own Greek yogurt (a prized possession among expats here in the UAE), and as the last few diners stroll out and wave goodbye, he is showing me one of the most popular main courses on Aqua's menu. Hammour with Cherry Tomatoes, Capers and White Wine.  Eating healthy and fresh is a theme for Sakalis, "We only use cream in one of our pasta dishes" he adds, pouring a drizzle of white wine into the pan so that it sizzles under the hot fish.

   Originally from Greece, Chef Sakalis studied cooking in Crete before going on to work in New York, one of the world's most culinarily innovative cities, especially for a young chef.  There, he worked in numerous restaurants, including a brief stint under the well-known Daniel Boulud.  But it was during this time that he really began to understand his own style. "I love to create food from the heart" he says, referring to his enjoyment for feeding people something that they can relate to.  While fancy techniques like foams and gelatins are great (and he does occasionally use such techniques), he prefers to cook high-quality food for "everyday meals".

He gently drops in a few slices of cherry tomatoes, black olives, and just a 1/2 teaspoon of butter.  He shakes the pan to settle the ingredients and adds in a few thin slices of garlic and fingerling potatoes that are confit in olive oil.  The pan is covered for just a few minutes, before removing it from the heat and delicately plating it.  No more than 10 minutes after he placed the first piece of raw fish in the pan, he pushes the finished dish over to me.  "Please do the honors" he says, handing me a spoon.

I scoop up a bite of the flaky hamour in a sip of its white wine broth.  I nudge a caper and tomato on to my spoon before putting it in my mouth.  The fish is tender, the broth is bright, and the caper and tomato provide a salty umami balance.  I take another bite.  The meaty, nutty, olive oil and potatoes are a perfect addition to the gracefulness of the fish and tomatoes.  The combination of simple ingredients is a perfect example of Chef Sakalis's "food from the heart".   It is rustic but elegant.  I can actually see myself making this at home.

Even with Sakalis's 15-hour days, his calmness and good humor is constant, which is not all that common for a chef.   His recipe for hammour is below, although his recommendation is to use it as inspiration for recreating your own.  And if you are not in the mood to attempt it yourself, you know that you can always find him at Aqua.   

Hammour with Cherry Tomatoes, Capers and White Wine*

hammour fillets lb 1
cherry tomatoes gr 75
capers gr 15
black olives gr 15
garlic sliced 2 cloves
1 shallot sliced
white wine ml 125
fish broth ml 150 (chicken or veg is suitable if you do not have fish)
butter gr 12.5
olive oil ml 50
lemon gr 75
parsley+dill 1 tbs chopped for garnish
 
*The original restaurant sized recipe, has been scaled down to a home cook version, but feel free to adjust the amount of tomatoes, black olives, capers, etc. to your own liking.

Set a pan on high heat and add olive oil.  Dry the fish fillets and pat one side in flour (so as to make a better crust when it is fried).  When the pan is just starting to smoke, place the fish in the pan, flour side down and sear it until slightly browned. Then remove it from the pan.
 
Add a few slices of par-boiled fingerling potatoes to your hot pan, so that they will sear and brown. Then adjust your heat to medium.  Add back in the fish, garlic, shallots, and a glug of white wine.  Let it cook off for a minute or two and finally add in a scoop of broth, a knob of butter, the cherry tomatoes, capers, and black olives.  Cover the pan and let it simmer for two minutes. 
 
Remove the lid and taste the broth for seasoning. Make sure that the fish is only just slightly firm, and the broth should reduce and thicken up a little.  If it has not yet reduced a little, remove the fish and simmer the broth for another minute or so. Plate it up as if you are a 5-Star chef, and add a little drizzle of olive oil to finish it off.
 
Voila!  Impress your dinner guests.

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