Food—like design, architecture, music, and fashion—is a reflection of our culture. To me, what feels modern now is a pared-down simplicity that emphasizes details, employing textures and tastes in novel and exciting ways. I'm not talking about putting food into a siphon and turning it into foam. Rather, it's about rethinking our preconceptions: borrowing spices and seasonings from other cultures, for instance, or contrasting ingredients that don't typically go together. The trick is not to veer so far from the original that the end result is unrecognizable or uncomfortable.
These recipes feature two of my favorite ingredients, used counter intuitively. Figs, usually relegated to dessert, are seared and paired with fennel as a sweet-and-savory accompaniment to baked salmon. The addition of sumac, a Middle Eastern spice, complements the figs and brings a lemony tartness to the dish, while the fennel adds a note of anise. Meanwhile, avocado, a staple of salads and sushi, has a delicacy of flavor and creaminess that lends itself perfectly to sorbet. In my kitchen, as long as the end result is delicious, anything goes. That's how we keep things fresh and modern.
BAKED SALMON WITH FIGS AND BRAISED FENNEL
2 lbs. center-cut, boneless, skinless salmon fillet, cut into 4 portions
1 tsp. sumac
3 ½ T extra-virgin olive oil, more for drizzling
3 fennel bulbs—2 trimmed and cut into small wedges, 1 trimmed and thinly sliced, preferably on a mandoline
1 cup unsalted chicken stock
7 ripe figs—4 halved, 3 diced
½ T balsamic vinegar
2 shallots, sliced
1 cup dry red wine
Pinch of sugar
3 T unsalted butter
¼ lb. arugula
Freshly squeezed juice of ½ lemon
Freshly ground white pepper
Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350°F. Season both sides of the salmon fillets with sumac and salt. Drizzle with olive oil and place on a foil-lined or nonstick baking sheet. Bake the fillets for about 8 minutes.
Put the fennel wedges, chicken stock, and 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a medium saucepan and season with salt. Cover and cook over medium heat until the fennel is tender, about 15 minutes. Remove from the liquid, set fennel aside, and keep warm.
Meanwhile, set a medium nonstick sauté pan over medium-high heat and add ½ tablespoon of olive oil. Add the halved figs, cut side down, to quickly sear them. Reduce the heat to low and add the balsamic vinegar. Cook for about 2 minutes, spooning the liquid over the figs until they are lightly glazed. Set the figs aside and keep warm.
Place the shallots, diced figs, red wine, and sugar in a small saucepan over high heat. Cook until the liquid is reduced to 1/3 cup, then strain through a fine-mesh sieve. Discard the solids and return the liquid to the pan. Reduce the heat to low and whisk in the butter.
When ready to serve, toss together the arugula and thinly sliced fennel and drizzle with lemon juice and 2 tablespoons olive oil, then season with salt and white pepper. Place the salmon fillets onto warm dinner plates and garnish each with 4 wedges of braised fennel and two glazed figs. Drizzle the sauce around the plate and add the arugula and fennel either as a small salad atop the salmon or scattered delicately around the fennel and figs.
WHAT TO DRINK
"When we have this classic dish of salmon and figs from chef Boulud's repertoire on the menu, I usually pair it with a domestic Pinot Noir," says Raj Vaidya, head sommelier at New York's Daniel restaurant. "I like the fruity but restrained Sonoma Coast 2011 from Kutch Wines [$40]—it has a touch of spice that plays well off the fennel." For an old-world alternative, he suggests Aurélien Chatagnier Saint-Joseph 2012 from the northern Rhône Valley ($30). As an accompaniment to the avocado sorbet, Vaidya recommends Ulrich Stein's Riesling Kabinett Feinherb 2013, from the Himmelreich vineyard in Germany's Mosel region ($27). "It's sweet," he says, "but it won't overpower the dessert, and it has complementary citrus aromas and flavors."