Putting down your own cooking proves a sharp hook for snagging compliments

THE HAPPY EATER

March 27, 1996|By ROB KASPER

I HAD A LARGE, FRESH rockfish. I had some garlic, some sherry vinegar, and some nectarines. Being fond of all these ingredients, I got them together for dinner. The result was so-so.

The dish, grilled rockfish with a sherried garlic relish, was OK. But it wasn't "Wow!" The fish turned out fine. It is hard to go wrong when you grill a whole fish over a charcoal fire. But the relish wasn't magical. It lacked pizazz, even though it had 15, yes 15, cloves of garlic in it.

I chalk it up as an error of enthusiasm. Earlier in the day that great fiery ball which I think is called the sun, had reappeared in the sky. The outside air had finally heated up enough to permit people to perform outdoor activities without wearing parkas.

In my heart, I wanted it to be summertime, when the fruit is juicy and the winds are warm. So I ended up making a summer dish on a cold spring night, and the results were lukewarm. It did, however, feel good to be cooking outside, even if I had to stand next to the barbecue grill to keep from shivering.

I realize that the guy who cooks a dish is usually its most severe critic. One reason for this behavior is defensive. Like many cooks, I figure that once I announce that a dish is a disappointment, the folks sitting around the table wolfing the food down can feel free to disagree and heap compliments on the culinary creation. That happened the other night at our house. The fish eaters in the house liked the rockfish, also known in these parts as striped bass, but were mild in their praise of the relish. There was also an element of genuine disapproval in my negative critique. As the cook I had to determine if the dish was worth the trouble. I was the one who had spent the time with the garlic cloves, and waiting for the sauce to boil down.

Moreover, when a dish is less than successful, the cook is the one who gets to conduct the postmortem. I did mine, the other night when the rockfish was still warm. I concluded that the weather was one reason for the failure of the sherried garlic relish. It wasn't really nectarine season. The imported March nectarines I bought at the market had much more pulp than juice. They gave the sauce color, but no verve. Later in the year, when the fruit gets better, the relish might improve.

Another reason for the sauce's disappointing showing was that I had "down-sized" it. The original recipe called for 30 to 40 cloves of garlic. I didn't feel up to peeling all those cloves, so I cut the garlic, and every other ingredient called for in the recipe, in half.

As many corporations can attest, down-sizing does not often work as expected. Instead of producing "a more efficient" version of the same thing, cutting back can result in a watered-down, less attractive version of the original. I think that is what happened to this relish. Maybe when I cut the garlic

along with every other ingredient in half, the chemistry was no longer right.

This was the first time I had made the relish. That is another possible reason for the disappointing results. The first time you make a dish, you follow the recipe writer's proportions. The second time around, you add or subtract ingredients and make it to your taste. If I make this recipe again, I would definitely use more garlic.

So when the weather is warmer and the nectarines are fatter, I might make this relish again. But if it again turns out to be so-so, then it will be banned from the family menu forever.

If I peel that much garlic, I want pizazz.

OC This recipe is from "Fish" by Mark Bittman (Macmillan, $27.50).

Sherried garlic and nectarine relish

Serves 4

30 to 40 cloves garlic

1 cup sherry vinegar

3 tablespoons olive oil

salt to taste

1/4 cup dry sherry

2 very ripe nectarines

juice of 1 lime

2 tablespoons minced cilantro

Peel garlic. Place it in a small saucepan with vinegar and olive oil; bring to a boil and cook over medium-low heat until almost all the liquid has evaporated, about 30 minutes. Salt lightly and add the sherry; continue to cook until the garlic is swimming in a syrupy liquid, about 10 more minutes.

Pit and coarsely chop the nectarines. Place them in bowl with lime juice and crush lightly with a fork. Add 1 to 2 tablespoons of sherried garlic and mash again. Add cilantro, stir and let sit while you grill the striped bass. Serve the relish cool with the grilled fish.

Pub Date: 3/27/96

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