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Key Ingredient: Chef Peter Coenen of the Gage holds his nose and faces sun-dried tomatoes

Can something that smells like "old shoes and dirty feet" be made into a menu-ready dish?



Aaron Arnett (sous chef at Davanti Enoteca), who challenged Peter Coenen of the Gage with sun-dried tomatoes, hates the dessicated fruit. As it turns out, so does Coenen. "They smell like old shoes and dirty feet," he said. "It's just not the most pleasant smell."

Though Coenen doesn't work with sun-dried tomatoes much—he thinks their taste is just as bad, acidic and bitter—he acknowledges their popularity. "I think it's kind of like wine," he said. "Everyone's nose is different, everyone's taste buds are different, so you pick up different flavors. Some people might get a sweet smell from them. As for me, I just get this funk."

To counteract that funk, he said, he used a lot of aromatics, employing sweated onions and garlic to bring out the sweetness of the tomatoes. And he wasn't afraid to experiment: "We tried brining and preserving them, tried smoking them, pureeing them, tried to make vinaigrettes out of them. I think what you'll find is that sun-dried tomatoes used in different ways bring out different flavors of the tomato—sweetness, acidity."

Nor did Coenen hold back on incorporating sun-dried tomatoes into the dish, using them four ways in the end. A sun-dried tomato and scallop mousse with onion, garlic, basil, and citrus zest went inside butterflied Alaskan halibut, which Coenen wrapped in plastic and steamed. He soaked more sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil he'd used to marinate olives, which gave it—and, in turn, the tomatoes—a briny flavor, then panfried them until they were dark on the outside. "They're not burnt, but they are very crispy, and the middle's still very tender," he said.

Coenen also made a vinaigrette with sun-dried and Roma tomatoes smoked with olive oil and garlic and pureed with sherry vinegar, salad oil, and basil. The last use was a chutney of sun-dried tomato and confit orange, made by his sous chef to accompany smoked meats on the current Gage menu. To round out the dish, Coenen sauteed asparagus, onions, and garlic and pureed them with cream; he also sauteed more asparagus with spring peas, charred scallion stems, and slivered smoked garlic.

The result, he said, could actually make it onto the menu. "I'm getting a lot of sweetness from the chutney—it's playing very well off the citrus in it as well as in the scallop mousse. Peas, asparagus, onion are kind of savory, kind of sweet. The seared sun-dried tomatoes are giving it a nice brininess, a nice saltiness to the entire dish. So we're really playing off the sweet, salty, and savory."

If he does put the dish on the menu, Coenen said, he'll dial back the sun-dried tomato a bit. But for this, he "wanted to showcase what you could actually do with a stinky sun-dried tomato."

Video by Michael Gebert/Sky Full of Bacon

Who's next:

Carl Shelton of Boka, working with sassafras. "I used to use that a lot in South Carolina. We used to pick it wild," Coenen said. "There's some cool things you can do with it, like extracting the oil. We've shaved the bark off and dehydrated it and fried it, used it in teas."

Halibut with sun-dried tomato and scallop mousse, sun-dried tomato chutney, and smoked sun-dried tomato vinaigrette

Sun-dried tomato and scallop mousse
½ Spanish onion, julienned
3 cloves garlic
2 T salad oil
1 qt sundried tomatoes
1 cup cream
1 cup water
Salt and pepper to taste

7 each u-10 dry pack scallops
1 egg
Zest of 1 lime
Zest of 1 lemon
Zest of 1/2 an orange
1/4 t togarshi spice
Splash of yuzu
2 cups cream

For the sun-dried tomato puree: Add oil to sauce pot over medium heat. Add the onions and crushed garlic and sweat until onions are translucent with no browning. Add sun-dried tomatoes and cook for five more minutes, stirring occasionally. Add water and cream and simmer for five more minutes. Add contents to a Vitaprep blender and puree. Pass through a tammis and season with salt and pepper.

For the scallops: Place raw scallops and egg in robot coupe or use an immersion blender and blend together. Emulsify in the cream while the scallops and egg are spinning. Use rubber spatula and scrape into a small metal bowl. Fold in all other ingredients and season with salt and pepper. Sear off a piece of the mousse for a taste test and adjust seasoning accordingly. Fold the sundried tomato puree into the scallop mousse and incorporate.

Butterfly open a 6-oz piece of halibut and season with sea salt. Spread a thin layer of mousse on one side, fold fish back to original form, season again with salt and olive oil, and wrap tightly in saran wrap. Steam for about 7 minutes.

Sun-dried tomato chutney
1 qt chopped sun-dried tomatoes
1 pt cider vinegar
1 cup sugar
1 orange, diced, skin on
1 onion, diced small

Add all ingredients to pot and simmer until thickened.

Smoked sun-dried tomato vinaigrette
1 qt sundried tomatoes, smoked
1 shallot, diced
¼ t Dijon mustard
1 cup champagne vinegar
1 pt salad oil

Add all ingredients except oil to blender. Blend to incorporate and slowly emulsify in oil.

Oil-cured sun-dried tomatoes
1 qt olive oil left over from marinating olives (this gives the oil the brininess)
3 cups sun-dried tomatoes

Let tomatoes sit in olive oil to pick up brininess from the olive flavor from the oil. Sear on one side until crispy on the outside but tender inside.

Asparagus puree
1 qt blanched asparagus, chopped
½ Spanish onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 pt cream
1 pt water

Sautee onions and garlic and asparagus. Add cream and water and simmer for five minutes. Puree in blender. Season with salt.

Spoon asparagus puree onto plate. Drizzle smoked sun-dried tomato vinaigrette over it. Sautee vegetables and place on plate. Place the steamed halibut on top of vegetables and season with fresh lemon juice. Quinelle the chutney on top and arrange the seared brined sundried tomatoes around the fish.

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