It's hard to believe, but in August Bottega Americano will have been open for two years. I remember walking around the cavernous restaurant's shell while it was under construction as executive chef Dave Warner explained how there would be different stations lining the walls--one for pasta making, one for making pizza, another for charcuterie, still another for pastry. Once it opened, it was impressive to see the vision realized--both in the design and the high caliber of the food being served.
I've enjoyed a lot of terrific meals there and was happy to visit one recent late morning to meet with sous chef Jeremy Oursland to learn how to make a new dish on their spring menu. They just call it Salmon, but it's a seared salmon filet with caramelized fennel, gnocchi, sugar snap peas, and Swiss chard, dressed with a tomato fonduta--Italy's version of fondue.
Oursland has been with Bottega Americano since it opened. Previously, he had worked with Warner at JRDN in Pacific Beach following a two-year hiatus during which he had moved to Santa Rosa and gone to school. Before that he'd worked at Rainwaters on Kettner while helping out his grandparents. Oursland grew up in the restaurant business. His dad had been a chef at a country club and Oursland started out there as a kid working as a dishwasher. Like many who start with doing the dishes and sticking with it, he got a chance to cook, first making brunch and breakfast, then dinner.
"I learned about catering and banquets. I learned about fine dining from my five years working there," he said.
Everything was prepped and ready to go when I got to the restaurant. First, Oursland showed me how to make the fonduta, filling a saucepan with half a lemon, wine, garlic, shallot, fresh herbs, peppercorns, and a roma tomato. Cream had been warmed in another pot. Once the mixture was reduced and strained, he added the cream, tomato paste, and butter, which yielded a rich yet slightly acidic sauce. In fact, this makes enough so that you can use some to serve with the salmon and vegetables and have more to enjoy over pasta, other fish, chicken, roasted vegetables, or (Oursland's suggestion) cheese curds. Or use it as a dipping sauce for bread.
Then Oursland cooked the salmon. In your home, use the stove. At the restaurant, Oursland takes advantage of the searing heat of the pizza oven. First he heated the cast iron skillet in the oven. Then he carefully added some canola oil and slid a salmon filet, skin side down and away from him onto the pan before pushing it into the oven. He also prepared a version on the stovetop.
Oursland suggests purchasing skin-on salmon from a specialty seafood market or Costco. He prefers wild or sustainably farmed salmon. When prepping it be sure to pat the skin dry so that it will get crispy. And only salt the fish just before you put it in the hot pan. "If you season it and let it sit, the salt will pull the moisture in the fish to the surface and the sear won't be as crisp," Oursland warns. He suggested using a fish spatula because its thin edge makes it easy to get under the fish without tearing the skin or the flesh--and it's easy to clean.
He also makes sure he blanches the vegetables before sauteing them. "This seals in the flavor, adds crunch, and brings out vibrant colors," he noted. "Make sure all the veggies have a chance to dry thoroughly before sauteing," he said, adding, "Thomas Keller has a chapter in the French Laundry cookbook about big pot blanching. It's well written and a fun read. I enjoy preparing vegetables. It can be a little time consuming but if you do so with respect for the product it will show in your dish. I find it very relaxing and rewarding.
"If you pay attention to the minor details it makes for such a better result," Oursland said.
From Jeremy Oursland of Bottega Americano
Serves 4 to 6, depending on portion size
½ pound sugar snap peas
1 bunch rainbow chard
2 fennel bulbs
3 ounces canola oil for caramelizing the fennel, and sautéing the gnocchi and the salmon
1 teaspoon butter
6 ounces per person of gnocchi (You can substitute pasta like fusilli or penne. You can also buy house-made gnocchi at Bottega Americano)
1 teaspoon olive oil
2 teaspoons crushed garlic
6 ounce portion per person salmon filet, skin on
1 cup fonduta (see below)
Yield: 3 cups
3 cups white wine-preferably one you wouldn’t mind drinking but not too expensive
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs thyme
2 sprigs tarragon
8 garlic cloves
1 large shallot roughly chopped
2 teaspoon peppercorns
1/2 of a lemon
1/2 medium tomato
1 cup cream, slightly warmed
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 pound butter, cut into pieces
To make the fonduta, combine the wine, bay leaf, thyme, tarragon, garlic, shallot, lemon, and tomato in a saucepan. Bring to a simmer and reduce by half.
Add the cream and whisk in the tomato paste. Reduce by a third, then strain the mixture through a sieve.
Return the sauce to the saucepan and whisk in the butter over medium-low heat. Season to taste with kosher salt. Strain again. Set aside.
For the vegetables:
Prepare an ice bath. Wash the rainbow chard thoroughly in cold water and dry. Remove the stems and dice the leaves into ¼-inch by ¼-inch pieces. Blanch in salted boiling water for one minute and then place in ice bath for a moment to shock them. Remove from the water and set aside.
Prep the sugar snap peas by removing the “string,” grabbing the outer edge where the pea was connected to the vine and pulling it away from the pea. Remove the tip where the pea connected to the vine, too. Blanch and then shock in the ice bath. Remove and set aside.
Cut the top and bottom of the fennel bulbs. Remove the core. (Save them to include in a simple vegetable stock). Julienne the remaining parts of the bulbs into ½-inch strips. Sauté in canola oil over medium-high heat until it has a nice caramel color and becomes soft. Finish with a touch of butter and season to taste with kosher salt. Set aside.
Blanch the gnocchi, then sauté on medium-high heat in canola oil until golden brown and crispy. Season with kosher salt. (If you’re using fusilli or penne, cook according to directions and skip the sautéing.)
Sauté all the prepared vegetables together in a pan with a little olive oil and crushed garlic. Add the gnocchi or pasta (or skip this step and add them while plating). Season to taste with kosher salt. Set aside.
To cook the salmon, first pat the skin dry to help the skin get crispy. Heat a cast iron or non-stick pan over medium-high heat. Add canola oil. Season the fish with kosher salt just prior to placing in the pan (again for a crispy skin). Lightly lay it in the pan skin side down and placing it in a motion away from the hand holding the pan to avoid splashing the oil on yourself. Let it cook approximately five minutes. Using a fish spatula, flip the filets carefully, tilting the pan away from you to avoid the oil splashing, and cook another two to three minutes on the other side. Remove from heat and let it rest a couple of minutes before plating.
To plate, place the vegetables and gnocchi on each plate to form a bed for the salmon. Place the salmon on top. Sauce the plate with the fonduta and serve immediately.
Bottega Americano is located in downtown San Diego at 1195 Island Ave.