Watercress Risotto

Watercress Risotto as prepared by Jakob Esko, executive chef at the Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay.

California’s Pacific Ocean coastline puts us up close to local fish and shell fish. Mackerel, sardines, and anchovies are part of our coastal catch, along with rock fish, petrale sole, sand dabs, and Monterey squid.

The grand migratory salmon and tuna species that travel our coast are eagerly awaited each year, and this year we had a bumper season of King Salmon, now sadly ended. However, Dungeness Crab season is coming in November when crab will be so local you can catch it off the pier in Pacifica.

Strangely, although we have all this local abundance, much of the fish we see behind the glass at seafood counters show provenance from the distant waters of Chile, Thailand, Peru, Mexico and other locations around the globe.

It’s worth getting to know which shellfish and fish are local and cooking with them. Restaurants are tending more and more to feature the local catch, and with a little effort we can do the same at home. Fish mongers are generally enthusiasts about their product and are more than willing to talk about provenance, and to even order specialty items, like sea urchin, also called uni, for you.

Fish Tacos

These are easy and quick to make, especially if you set out the condiments and let everyone make their own tacos. Any kind of fish is suitable, but I especially like to use rock fish. It’s delicate, yet holds its shape, is full of flavor and is reasonably priced.

12 corn tortillas

1 ½ pounds rock fish or other fish fillet

Sea Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Flour for dredging

2 tablespoons butter

Optional garnishes:

Shredded cabbage

Chopped tomatoes


Crema (Mexican sour cream)

Salsa of your choice

To warm the tortillas, heat a small, dry frying pan over medium high heat. Add a tortilla, heat for about 45 seconds, turn and continue to heat until the tortilla is soft, about 30 seconds. Remove to a lightly damp kitchen towel and wrap. Continue until all the tortillas are done. Keep them all wrapped in the towel on a place and keep covered with a lid.

Season the fillets with salt and pepper. In a frying pan over medium high heat, warm the butter. When it foams, dredge the fillets one by one in the flour, on both sides. Shake off any excess flour and place in the frying pan. Fry until lightly golden, about 2 minutes. Turn and fry the other side until lightly golden and the fish flakes easily when a fork is inserted. Remove to a plate and cut or break into bite-size or slightly larger pieces.

Serve the fish, along with the warm tortillas and garnishes.

Makes 12 tacos; serves 4

Oyster Chowder

In this French style chowder, some of the potatoes are puréed to form a creamy base for a quick poach of the oysters. The base can be made ahead, then gently reheated with the oysters added shortly before you are ready to serve.

12 – 14 small to medium oysters or 6 large oysters and their reserved liquor, about 1/3 to ½ cup (add water if needed) or 1 8-ounce jar small to medium oysters

2 tablespoons butter

2 stalks celery, minced

1 leek, white only, minced

1 thin slice prosciutto, about 1 inch by 8 inches, chopped

1 shallot, minced, about 1/3 cup

¼ cup dry white wine

2 Russet or other starchy potatoes, peeled and cut into ½ inch cubes, about 2 ¼ cups

About 2 cups whole milk

½ to 1 teaspoon sea salt

¼ to ½ freshly ground black pepper

To shuck the oysters, wrap a kitchen towel over your non-dominant hand and use it to hold the oyster firmly, round side down. Using an oyster knife in the other hand, slip the tip of the knife inside the shell at the base of the oyster hinge, forcefully twist the knife, then lift up to open the hinge. Slide the knife blade under the top shell of the oyster to sever the muscle, then remove the top shell and slip the oyster and its liquor into a bowl. Discard the shell. If using large oysters, cut them in half. Set aside. If using jarred oysters, set the oysters and their liquor aside.

In a heavy-bottomed saucepan or casserole, over medium heat, melt the butter. When it foams, add the celery, leek, shallot, and prosciutto and saute until the vegetables soften, about 2 minutes. Increase the heat to high and add the white wine, stirring to deglaze any bits. Add the potatoes, 1 ½ cups of the milk and all of the oyster liquor. When tiny bubbles appear around the edge of the milk, reduce the heat to low and cover. Simmer until the potatoes can be pierced with the tip of a knife, about 30 minutes.

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With an immersible blender, purée about half the chowder. Or, remove half the mixture to a standard blender and purée, then return to the soup pot. Taste for salt – the liquor will have contributed some – and add salt as needed, plus ¼ teaspoon of the pepper. If desired, add ¼ and up to ½ cup more of the milk for a slightly thinner chowder.Return the chowder to medium heat and bring to a slow simmer as before.

Add oysters to the soup and let them poach just until their edges curl, about 2 minutes. Taste the soup and add more salt or pepper if needed.

To serve, ladle into a soup tureen or into individual bowls and serve immediately.

Serves 4

From La Vie Rustic – Cooking and Living in the French Style by Georgeanne Brennan (Weldon-Owen, 2017)

Watercress Risotto, Shimeji, Local Uni, Bottarga

As served in Navio by Jakob Esko, executive chef at the Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay

Bottarga is salted, cured fish roe. Shimeji are Japanese mushrooms also called beach mushrooms, with long white stems and small, beige cap. The grow and are sold in clumps.

The recipe below is just as Chef Esko kindly provided it to me for this publication. It is an ethereal dish.

Serves 4.

2 sea urchins

1 oz. bottarga

Risotto Base

2 tbsp. of olive oil

4 tbsp. of chopped scallions

1 cup of Acquerello rice

2 tbsp. of white wine

2 cups of vegetable stock

In a large pot, add the olive oil and sauté the scallions. Add the rice and sauté for 5 minutes. Deglaze with white wine. Gradually add the vegetable stock until reduced to dry and stir continuously for about 12 minutes.

Mini Shimeji

1 cup of mini shimeji

1/2 cup chopped scallions

1 tbsp. butter

1 tbsp. of sake

1 tbsp. mirin

1 ½ cups of vegetable broth

Salt and pepper

Clean the mini shimeji carefully and blanch them in boiling water. Next, poach the scallions in the butter until it is very sweet. Add the sake and reduce to dry, then add the mirin and vegetable broth and reduce again until caramelized. Season with salt and pepper. Add risotto to a tray and cook in the oven at 180 degrees for two minutes.

Watercress Purée

3 cups watercress and extra for finishing

2 tbsp. hazelnut butter

1 cup of vegetable stock


Blanch the watercress in salted boiling water and refresh in ice and water. Drain it and purée in a mixer, adding the hazelnut butter and the vegetable stock. Season to taste and pass it through a fine sieve.

To finish, add a little more vegetable stock to the risotto and if you wish, mix with grated Parmesan and butter. Add some watercress purée.

Pour the risotto in bowls. Add a few mushrooms and a tongue of sea urchin in the center on each and finish with a bit of grated bottarga.

Decorate with some fresh watercress leaves.

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