Sometimes the name of a dish doesn’t do it justice. Yellowtail with Creamed Corn, Asparagus, Wild Mushrooms and Peach-Watermelon-Basil Relish sounds good, but it might be overlooked on a menu. In the talented hands of Blake Mellgren, executive chef-owner of Craft House in Dana Point, the dish is well worth a two-hour drive in traffic. It’s that scrumptious.
The yellowtail is caught locally and cooked to perfection; fork cut, its caramelized surface reveals a lovely central streak of pink. The corn, oh, the corn, is rich in thyme-scented cream and mellowed-out garlic. Mellgren points out that it’s creamed corn, not cream corn; creamed corn is luxuriously simmered in heavy whipping cream that’s augmented with the silky corn milk grated from the cobs’ exteriors. Once pureed and augmented with a few whole kernels, it’s smeared to cover the plate with a blanket of irresistibility.
A mélange of sautéed vegetables rests on the corn, a mix of herbal earthiness composed of tender-crisp vegetables and browned wild mushrooms. The fish rests on an angle atop the veg and is generously adorned with fresh fruit salsa.
If you taste this dish, you won’t be surprised that Mellgren is one of three finalists in the upcoming Golden Foodie Awards in the prestigious 2018 Chef of the Year category.
For entertaining at home, everything except pan-roasting the fish and sautéing the vegetables can be completed before guests arrive, plus no other side dishes are needed because it’s a one-dish meal that includes fruits and vegetables. Adapt the salsa with fall favorites by substituting oranges, tangerines or apples for the peaches; change up the fish is you like with another mild white-fleshed variety, such as halibut or cod.
Have a look at the video to see how Mellgren nuances the dish. He makes it look easy, and I love his “string-through-the-handle” trick.
Working the acclaimed kitchen of Danny Meyer’s The Modern, NYC: He says that it was like a ballet at 120 degrees, a symphony of dancers all in unison. As a line cook, he kept his eyes and ears open 24-7, taking in the nuances that were part of everyday routine that most restaurants overlook.
Corn love: At a Taste of OC event, he teamed his creamed corn with beef cheeks. He says that he adores corn in both savory and sweet dishes, including desserts.
Drink of choice: Bourbon. There are over 70 whiskeys at Craft House. One of his favorites is Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.
Preteen cook: Growing up in Laguna Niguel and San Juan Capistrano, somewhere between the ages of 10 and 12, he decided to cook Sunday dinner. His menu included clam and corn chowder, filet mignon, twice-baked potatoes and flourless chocolate cake garnished with raspberry coulis. He recalls that the expression on his mother’s face was priceless when they went grocery shopping for the event. She was unsure about what she had signed up for turning over the kitchen to such an ambitious kid. In the process of cooking that dinner, he learned the value of reading all the steps of a recipe before starting to cook.
Restaurant favorites in South County: 370 Common, as well as Driftwood Kitchen, both in Laguna Beach.
Pan-Roasted Yellowtail with Creamed Corn, Asparagus, Wild Mushrooms with Peach-Watermelon-Basil Relish
Yield: 4 servings
6 husked ears of corn, white or yellow
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium-sized shallots, thinly sliced lengthwise
6 garlic cloves, peeled and left whole
Salt and pepper to taste
6 sprigs fresh thyme, tied together with cotton string, leaving one long end
2 cups heavy whipping cream
Asparagus, Wild Mushroom and Summer Squash:
2 tablespoons olive oil or blended oil (canola and olive oil)
1 bag of shimeji or honshimeji mushrooms (Whole Foods, Asian Markets)
1 bunch asparagus, cut on diagonal into 3/4-inch slices, leaving tips intact
1 summer squash (zucchini, Mexican white “tatuma” or crookneck), diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 shallot, cut into 1/4-inch dice
1/4 cup dry white wine
Fresh herb mix: minced fresh thyme, rosemary, chives, parsley
Peach, Watermelon and Basil Relish:
1 ripe peach, white or yellow (in fall substitute orange, tangerine or apple)
Heart of 1 watermelon
1 sprig fresh basil, cut into thin strips
3 tablespoons blended oil (canola and olive oil)
4 (about 5 ounces each) yellowtail fillets (or substitute halibut, cod, or other white-fleshed fish)
2 1/2 tablespoons butter
- Prepare creamed corn. Cut corn kernels off cobs; don’t cut too close to the cob (leave some “meat” attached to the cob); cut atop a clean kitchen towel to corral the kernels. Set kernels aside. Grate cobs on a box grater set over bowl or rimmed plate to extract corn milk; set aside. In a large, deep skillet, cook garlic and shallots in oil on medium-high heat until shallots soften. Season with salt and pepper. Reserving about 1/2 cup of kernels, add remaining kernels to skillet; cook until just barely tender. Add thyme (tie string to pan handle) and cream; simmer about 15 minutes. Add corn milk to cream mixture and let cook for 5 more minutes. Puree corn and cream mixture with an immersion blender or blender until smooth. Return pureed corn to put and add reserved corn; simmer 5 minutes. Taste and add more salt, or pepper (or both) if needed.
- Prepare vegetable mixture. Heat oil in large skillet on high heat. Add mushrooms and sauté until lightly browned. Add asparagus and summer squash; sauté until squash is just barely tender, about 3 minutes. Add garlic and shallot and sauté 1 minute. Add white wine, salt and pepper. Cook until wine is reduced. Season with a good pinch of fresh herb mix. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. (Just before serving, add a little more of that herb mix.)
- Prepare relish: Cut peach and watermelon in 1/2-inch dice; season lightly with salt and pepper. Add basil and gently toss.
- Prepare fish: Heat oil in large skillet until almost smoking on medium-high heat. Add fish, pressing it down gently. Reduce heat to medium. Once crust is achieved, about 3 minutes, turn it. Add butter and cook about 2 additional minutes. To plate, spread creamed corn over surface of each dinner plate. Place a generous scoop of vegetable mixture on one side. Place fish next to mixture leaning one side of fish on vegetables so that it is on a slant. Top fish with relish. Serve.
Craft House is at 34094 CA-1, Dana Point. www.eatatcrafthouse.com
Cathy Thomas is an award-winning food writer and has authored three cookbooks: “50 Best Plants on the Planet,” “Melissa’s Great Book of Produce,” and “Melissa’s Everyday Cooking with Organic Produce.”