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Be Victorious in the Kitchen with Iron Chef Michael Symon

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Written by Carolyn Jung   
Wednesday, 20 January 2010

ImageYou know Michael Symon as the first winner of the Food Network's "The Next Iron Chef'' competition, as the well-regarded chef with the rather maniacal laugh of Cleveland restaurants, Lola and Lolita, and as the comrade-in-arms of the irrepressible Anthony Bourdain.

I know Symon, though, as one of the most meticulous cookie judges I've ever seen.

Three years ago, just after he was crowned an "Iron Chef,'' Symon and I happened to be on the same panel to judge the annual KGO-radio cookie-baking contest. Dozens and dozens of homemade cookies lay before us, awaiting our verdicts. It's not as easy as it sounds, not with so many cookies to keep track of, so many prizes to give out, and a ginormous sugar overload taking its toll.

Seated next to Symon, I couldn't help but watch him as we all worked hard to figure out which cookies we liked and which we didn't. The rest of us would take bites, push the sampled cookie aside, then jot down notes. Symon did the same, but also something quite different. He would keep a penny-sized piece of each cookie, then arrange them all in a straight row almost like cookie soldiers at attention. Periodically, when he would discover a cookie he liked better, he'd shift the position of one cookie remnant or another, but still maintain that perfectly straight formation. It was a sight to see.

So, naturally, when Symon's cookbook, "Michael Symon's Live to Cook'' (Clarkson Potter) came out last year, I was curious to see if that same sense of order and attention to detail pervaded his recipes.

Indeed it does, but not in an overbearing, fussy chef-y way. After all, you have to love a guy who writes in his introduction, "If I can't finish a dish in two pans, I won't do it.''
The book, written with one of the best food writers around, Michael Ruhlman, is all about robust flavors. The dishes are influenced by Symon's Greek, Italian, Eastern European, and Midwest heritages. There's lamb tartare with lemon and Greek yogurt; spicy tomato and blue cheese soup; turnip kraut; and braised short ribs with pickled green tomatoes.

Symon makes no secret about his love of the pig. Indeed you'll find all manner of porky recipes from crispy pig's ears with pickled vegetables to pappardelle with pig's head ragu to pork cheek chili.

What attracted my eye, though, was his "Lightly Cured Tuna with Olives, Orange, and Shaved Fennel.'' I've cured many a salmon and tuna before. But none where the curing was done with olive brine. How intriguing is that?

I thought for sure the checkout girl at the grocery store would give me an inquisitive look after I made my way to the olive bar, and scooped up ¾ cup of brine into a container along with only 10 olives. But she let me pay for my strange purchase without a word.

This dish, which makes a lovely first course, comes together easily. You cut sushi-grade tuna loin into thin slices, then pour the olive brine over them, along with the actual olives, some fresh-squeezed orange juice, and chopped fennel fronds. Then, you let it do its thing in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes or up to a day.

When you're ready to serve, divide the dish amongst four plates. Arrange orange segments, shaved fennel, fennel, and a little of the curing juices. A few cilantro leaves give added color. A drizzle of good olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt ties it all together.

Since I let my tuna cure for less than an hour, its texture hadn't changed markedly. The flavors of the dish were so vibrant, with the olives adding a real lushness. Think of it as sashimi done Mediterranean-style. If you already a fan of the classic Italian fennel-olive-orange salad, you're sure to love this, which has similar fresh, citrus-y flavors, but with the added bonus of melt-in-your mouth, silky fish.

Like Symon's pieces of cookies at the cookie judging, I'm lining up straight away to try more of his wonderful recipes.

Read more on Carolyn making Michael Symon's Cured Tuna on her blog - Food Gal

Lightly Cured Tuna with Olives, Oranges, and Shaved Fennel

From Michael Symon's Live to Cook by Michael Symon and Michael Ruhlman, Clarkson Potter, 2009.

This dish is based on the ancient Greek preparation called spinialo. Fishermen would travel down from their homes in the mountains to head out to sea for several weeks. For the journey home, they would take some of the fish they had caught, cut it into cubes, put it into empty wine jugs, and fill the bottles with sea water. The salt in the water would cure the fish. They would then eat the fish with a squeeze of lemon and some wild herbs, which would sustain them during their journey home.

I cure the fish with the brine from the olives, which imparts a mild olive flavor. Here I use cerignola, which I love in raw preparations, but you could use kalamata, niçoise, or any other black, brine-cured olive. You need to leave the fish in the brine for at least thirty minutes-the tuna picks up flavors fast. Depending how far you want to take it, though, you could leave the tuna in the cure for up to a day. To keep the fishermen's tradition, we serve it with some freshly shaved fennel and fennel fronds, which grow wild in Greece (though some pickled fennel would also be delicious), along with a squeeze of orange juice and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil.

Serves 4

  • ½ pound sushi-grade tuna loin
  • 10 cerignola olives, pitted and left whole, with 3/4 cup olive brine, or more if needed to cover the fish slices
  • 1 large orange, segmented (see Symon Says, page 73), juice reserved
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fennel fronds
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ small bulb fennel, shaved (½ cup)
  • Fresh cilantro leaves, for garnish
  • Extra-virgin olive oil, for garnish
  • Coarse sea salt, for garnish

Slice the tuna across the grain into ¼ -inch-thick slices. Lay the slices in a deep glass or ceramic dish, pour in enough olive brine just to cover the fish, and let it cure for at least 3O minutes (or refrigerate, covered, for up to a day). Add the olives, reserved orange juice, and fennel fronds. Grind fresh black pepper over each slice of fish.
To serve, divide the fish among four shallow bowls and top with the orange segments and shaved fennel, olives, and some of the curing juices. Garnish each serving with a few cilantro leaves, a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil, and a sprinkling of coarse sea salt.

About Michael Symon's Live to Cook

ImageHometown boy turned superstar, Michael Symon is one of the hottest food personalities in America. Hailing from Cleveland, Ohio, he is counted among the nation's greatest chefs, having joined the ranks of Mario Batali, Bobby Flay, and Masaharu Morimoto as one of America's Iron Chefs. At his core, though, he's a midwestern guy with family roots in old-world traditions. In Michael Symon's Live to Cook, Michael tells the amazing story of his whirlwind rise to fame by sharing the food and incredible recipes that have marked his route.

Available at

Disclosure: Review copies of books discussed in this post may have been provided to Project Foodie by publicists and/or publishers.


Last Updated ( Monday, 11 January 2010 )
Big Flavors from a Big Persona
peggy (Author) 2010-01-20 07:58:55

Nice article Carolyn, thank you! I agree that Symon's creamy tomato soup (that features good-quality canned tomatoes, a bit of blue cheese, and a healthy dose of sriracha sauce)is brilliant. I would also urge readers to try his Roasted Dates with Pancetta, Almonds, and Chile (on page 31)--another zesty combination of wonderful flavors.
More Praise for the Book
spm (Author) 2010-01-20 10:15:01

I too am a fan of the book and as a result have purchased a bottle of sriracha sauce for his recipes (and my eggs!). Thanks for pointing out this recipe which sounds great. You could probably use the brine from a nice size jar of brined olives such as Kalamata, adding water to meet the required measurement.
Creamy Tomato Soup
Carolyn Jung (Unregistered) 2010-01-20 13:42:34

With the rain drenching the region today, it would be a very nice time for a big bowl of that tomato soup. Oooh, with sriracha sauce, too? I am definitely trying that recipe next! ;)
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