Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Seafood Mastery With Chef Uri Jeremias at NECAT

Last month, I praised NECAT: A Culinary School Worthy Of Special Attention, as it is helping to fill the need for trained cooks as well as assisting local people, with challenging backgrounds, to move forward, leave their past behind, and start a new career. It is a great cause, but like most non-profits it can always use more financial support, especially in light of proposed State budget cuts.

One way NECAT hopes to raise some funds is through their new Master Chef Series, where they invite a famous Chef to work with their students, preparing a special dinner event. The first Master Chef event was held on December 8, and included passed hors d’oeuvres, a cooking demonstration and a five-course Middle Eastern dinner, centered on seafood. I attended this event as a media guest, and also had a chance to interview their featured chef, the fascinating Uri Jeremias.

The resemblance to Santa Claus, including the fact that Uri Jeremias is a very jovial person, is a natural conclusion, especially during December. Chef Jeremias is the owner of Uri Buri, a famous seafood restaurant located in Akko, Israel, and it was established in 1989. Akko, also known as Acre, is located in northern Israel on the Haifa Bay, and has a rich and vibrant history, over 5000 years, and is considered to be one of the oldest cities in the world.

Jeremias, who is around 70 years old, was born in the coastal city of Nahariya. As a child, he was drawn to the sea, becoming a fishermen and diver, often cooking the seafood he caught for family and friends. The Mediterranean Sea provided a rich and diverse bounty for his fishing. As Jeremias had ADHD, he didn't attend school too much, preferring to spend his time at the harbor. He loved the quality and quantity of the seafood he found, and self taught himself how to cook. His mother wasn't keen on him cleaning the fish at home so she made him clean it outside.

After being tossed out of school when he was 16 years old, he spent a number of years traveling the world. He also served in the Israel Defense Forces, eventually quitting to open a seafood restaurant, urged on by his many friends who loved his cooking. He "... decided he would cook for friends, not customers or clients, but friends." The restaurant is located in a 400-year old Ottoman-era building, serving simple seafood dishes and many Israeli wines.

Jeremias has remained self-taught, having never formally studied the culinary arts and never having trained with another chef. For most of his career, he also hasn't relied on written recipes and only began putting his recipes onto paper when he started working on his cookbook. Interestingly, he takes in a number of young people to his restaurant to teach them how to cook seafood but after three years he sends them to culinary school. He feels it is important for them to share a common knowledge with other cooks from other restaurants. In addition, he notes that it has only been in recent years have Israeli cooking schools taught about seafood.

His favorite seafood is whatever is freshest in the market. He also believes that there are is no bad seafood, only bad cooks. In addition, he doesn't cook what he won't eat, so there is nothing for show on his playing. Everything is edible and intended to be eaten. Jeremias stated "food has its own aestethic," something many of the best chefs understand. Visually appealing dishes can be very important, though taste is still the most important aspect.

Chef Jeremias generally uses no more than 8 ingredients on any plate, trying to keep it simple. However, he also believes that you can spend an entire lifetime working on different combinations of 8 ingredients, and you still will only create a fraction of the myriad possibilities. There is plenty to discover with taste, even with only 8 ingredients. He prefers to prepare small portions for sharing as he feels that after 5-6 bites, a dish is no longer interesting to eat.

Importantly, sustainability is crucial to him, as he "believes in preserving nature," noting "we do too much damage already," emptying and polluting the oceans. He won't serve endangered species and doesn't believe others should do so either. He is an ardent proponent of farmed seafood, nothing that it is the future of seafood and certainly cannot be ignored.

Jeremias provide some important and simple advice for home cooks on preparing seafood. To him, the main reason for failure in the kitchen are the raw materials used. As such, his two basic rules of cooking are simple: 1) Use the best raw materials; and 2) Don't spoil them. Seafood isn't difficult to cook but many home cooks are afraid of the smell or the bones, and also don't know how to properly buy seafood at the market. Fish just needs to be cooked carefully and for a short time. And to help home cooks even more, Jeremias will soon be bringing his seafood cookbook to the U.S.

His cookbook, Buri: Fish and Seafood, is essentially divided into two parts, the first section concerning how to buy and cook seafood while the second section contains all of the recipes. He believes it is vital for consumers to know how to purchase seafood, a sentiment I have heard from a number of other seafood chefs. It is also important to be able to determine the differences between fresh and frozen seafood, a much greater difference than that encountered with beef and pork. The first section also discusses the basic cooking techniques that can be used to prepare seafood. This entire section is created to allay the fears of home cooks and I think it is a great idea, and much needed. The book also contain numerous photos of seafood, but as they are presented in the market, not in the wild. This will better help consumers buy seafood at their local market.

At the Master Chef event, Jeremias conducted a cooking demo, preparing a simple Mackerel dish for the attendees. What an incredible aroma from the cooking fish, lots of garlic and fish sauce. He spent several days working at NECAT and loved it, thinking that it was a special time. He was truly touched by NECAT, noting that it was a "light shining in the darkness." As we chatted, he stated that NECAT, and similar programs, should receive plenty of government assistance as it so important for individuals as well as the community. It is a win/win proposition, and worthy of hearty support.

The evening of the Master Chef event began with a reception presenting a variety of passed hors d’oeuvres, with beer and wine. With each bite of these tasty treats, you were drawn into the culinary wonders of Chef Jeremias and the students at NECAT. From an Eggplant Bruschetta, with a smoky and earthy edge, to a bright Ceviche with Sea Bream, it was difficult not to fill up on these small items, though you knew there was a five-course dinner still to come. The other guests also raved about the hors d’oeuvres, and we talked about which were our favorites.

After a cooking demonstration, we then sat down for the main meal, presented family style. We began with Majadra, a common Middle Eastern fish of lentils, rice and onions. "Majadra" is from an Arabic word that means "pockmarked" as the lentils in the rice allegedly resemble pockmarks. It was a hearty dish, with intriguing spices, enhanced by the earthiness of the lentils. It was easy to understand the popularity of this dish.

There was also an Arugula Salad, made with golden beets, cucumber, parsley, organic carrot, and pomegranate seeds. A nice combination of fresh ingredients.

The Shrimp a la Artichoke was made with citrus, butter, artichoke, and fresh pasta, presenting juicy shrimp in a light and acidic sauce. This showed the simplicity of the seafood dishes of Chef Jeremias, yet it certainly didn't lack in taste.

The Tuna a la Plancha, served on top of yogurt, with some picante spices, was another delicious dish. The tuna was moist and meaty, with pleasant spices and a hint of heat, which could be soothed by the creamy yogurt.

My favorite dish of the evening was the Mackerel, with fresh coriander, green and red chili peppers, olive oil and garlic. The clean and compelling taste of the fish was at the forefront, enhanced by a mild spicy heat and the delicious taste of garlic. Simple perfection.

Chef Uri Jeremias lives up to his vaunted reputation as a master of seafood and it was an honor to have been invited to the Master Chef dinner. I eagerly await the publication of his cookbook in the U.S. and highly recommend everyone else do the same if you have any interest in learning how to cook seafood. I often recommended that people eat more seafood and cook more seafood at home. I've provided advice from other chefs on how to cook seafood at home, and this new seafood cookbook would provide plenty of valuable advice for home cooks.

I also want to once again raise awareness of NECAT, a Culinary School Worthy Of Special Attention. Their Master Chef series will continue in 2017 so you should keep an eye out for the next event. It is a great way to support NECAT and I'm sure you'll also enjoy plenty of delicious food and drink.

1 comment:

Sue said...

Good to know about this school which sounds like it is doing a great job!