Think Thin When Making Carpaccio

April 18, 2007
Section: Food Bay Area Living

The best advice for any carpaccio is to pound, plate and season one for yourself in advance to get a proper sense of how thin and how assertive to make it (plus, that means you get to eat two). But here is some more practical guidance.

Slicing, pounding and storingRestaurants often use electric slicers like you see at the deli, but for most foods a French or Japanese mandoline will do the job. Meats and fish, however will need to be sliced by hand cutting large, thin slices, preferably one per plate (since you should be shopping the day of your party, you can ask your butcher or fishmonger to do it for you). For pounding, a stainless steel mallet is ideal, but you can use any heavy flat object, even a wine bottle."You want to pound gently so as to flatten but not break the fibers," says Peter Chastain of Prima. Chastain recommends placing each slice of meat or fish between two pieces of parchment paper, pounding to the desired thickness (about 1/8-1/16 of an inch) then stacking the parchment bundles along with your plates for up to several hours until ready to serve. To transfer, remove the top layer of parchment and turn the fish or meat onto the plate (Chastain likes to season the plate first with salt and pepper), then strip off the top layer of parchment, leaving the carpaccio on the plate. Season again and proceed with your garnishes.BeefThe classic meat for carpaccio, and the one preferred by Massi Boldrini of Riva Cucina, is tenderloin of beef. Chastain likes the flavor and texture of top sirloin for carpaccio, while Kevin Gin of Bridges uses strip loin. Both of these cuts have to be carefully butchered to obtain a clean, gristle-free slab. Tenderloin is certainly the easiest to slice and pound, but many chefs describe it as tasteless and might sear, smoke or season it more aggressively.Some restaurants, including the restaurant Carpaccio in Antioch, use eye of the round — a fat-tenderloin shaped cut that has more flavor than filet but is much less expensive. Eye of the round, also commonly used in Vietnamese pho, does tend to have a spidery piece of gristle running down the center, however. Many chefs freeze their meat and obtain extremely thin, unpounded slices on a deli slicer. But freezing forms crystals that seep from the thawed meat."Nine out of 10 carpaccio you eat in a restaurant are watery," Chastain says. Obviously, whatever cut you choose, the meat should be absolutely fresh when you buy it. Tell your butcher what you're using it for. "I encourage home cooks to develop a relationship with a butcher and a fishmonger," Chastain says. Figure about 2 ounces per plate. If you want a clean presentation, turn a correctly sized bowl over the pounded and plated carpaccio and trim around the bowl to obtain a perfect circle of meat. A rustic presentation can be equally compelling, however, and is of course less wasteful. Chastain's version is simply dressed with a homemade mayonnaise spiked with Dijon mustard and garnished with salt-packed capers that have been previously soaked.FishFish and shellfish can be pounded out just like meat. Swordfish and hamachi work particularly well, but any pristine fish will do; pounded spot prawns and scallops have appeared as carpaccio in Bay Area restaurants. Chastain's ahi carpaccio requires no pounding at all.Start with a thick piece of No. 1 Ahi (ask your fishmonger) from the head end of the fish. Season generously with crushed red and black pepper, fennel seed and fresh chopped rosemary, parsley and sage. Let it sit 20 minutes. Get a heavy saut pan "brutally hot" says Chastain. Coat the seasoned fish with oil and put it in the pan, searing it for seconds on every side just to lock in the seasoning."It's going to create a lot of smoke," Chastain says. "Open the windows." Let it rest on a rack for up to an hour or chill for several hours. To serve, slice thin and season with kosher salt, lime, extra virgin olive oil, a chiffonade of mint and a spoonful of aged balsamic (the 12-year-old balsamic Chastain uses is about $100 a bottle). Microgreens and avocado slices are optional.Beets and produce"You can really make all different kinds of flat preparations," says Chastain. "Mangoes and papayas and avocados. Another thing to think of is hearts of palm." But beets are the hippest vegetable (there is a recipe for Beet Carpaccio in this month's Bon Appetit). For Chastain's beet carpaccio, he simmers (in separate pots of salted water) medium-sized red and golden beets until just tender and then splashes them with cold water. While still warm, peel the beets and cool them (overnight is ideal). Slice thin on a mandoline and transfer to individual plates, overlapping and alternating slices of red and gold (be careful not to color the golden slices with red-stained fingers). Over the beets, spoon a dressing of lemon juice, olive oil and black truffle paste (available in specialty markets; you can substitute white truffle oil). Garnish with aged pecorino, cut into squares, shaved or simply crumbled by hand, and, if desired wisps of frissee lettuce.— Nicholas Boer