JULY 10, 2012

MEET THE SOUS CHEF

TONY QUARTARO, CHEF DE CUISINE, THE BRISTOL

Tony Quartaro can count on one hand how many days off he’s had since becoming chef de cuisine at The Bristol in Chicago last April.

Quartaro left his position at Fedora in New York City, moving to the Midwest to be closer to his fiancée’s family. They’ll marry next week; then, according to Quartaro, “I’ll have six consecutive days of vacation” for his honeymoon in the British Virgin Islands.

A native of Ames, Iowa, the 28-year-old chef started his career in Lawrence, Kansas, then moved to San Francisco, working first at Nopa and later at A16, where he met chef Nate Appleman; when Appleman left San Francisco to open Pulino’s, he invited Quartaro to join him. As at A16, at Pulino's he gravitated toward whole-animal butchery and pasta-making, two skills he uses daily at The Bristol.

For Sous Chef Series, he made a memorable midsummer dish that hints at his Iowa roots as well as his interest in Italian food, cooking polenta in corn milk and accompanying it with a crisp-skinned piece of black bass.

TRACK THIS CHEF

Tony Quartaro's:

DAY IN THE LIFE

TIPS & TECHNIQUES

Fish 101

To prevent the fish fillet from curling when it’s seared, Quartaro scores the skin lightly. He cooks the fish skin side down in a very hot pan, pressing on the center of the fillet to flatten it as it cooks. Instead of flipping the filet, he finishes the fish in the oven.

Polenta Basics

Quartaro recommends the heirloom corn polenta from Anson Mills, as well as the coarse polenta bramata made by Italian company Moretti. “That’s the brand they call for in the River Café cookbook,” he says. “And the River Café chefs, they don’t mess around.”

MAKE THE
Seared Bass with Corn Polenta and Tomato Compote

YIELD

Serves 2

INGREDIENTS

Tomato Compote

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 garlic clove, smashed

2 vine-ripened tomatoes, cored and sliced into eighths

Pinch kosher salt

Sherry or red wine vinegar

Polenta

1 ear of corn, kernels sliced off and cob reserved

2 cups whole milk, plus extra if needed

6 tablespoons coarse polenta

½ tablespoon unsalted butter

1 juniper berry, grated on a Microplane grater

Zest of ½ lemon

Bass

Two 6-ounce black bass fillets, pin bones removed using tweezers

Kosher salt

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil plus extra for serving

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted

8 leaves basil--stacked, rolled and thinly sliced crosswise

DIRECTIONS

1. Make the tomato compote: In a medium saucepan set over low heat, add the oil and garlic and cook until golden-brown, about 3 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to remove the garlic and increase the heat to high. Once the oil is almost smoking, after about 1½ minutes, add the tomatoes and any accumulated juices. Reduce the heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes are completely broken down and look jammy, 15 to 20 minutes. Stir in the salt and taste; if the compote tastes flat, add a splash of the sherry or red wine vinegar. Turn off the heat and set aside.

2. Make the polenta: In a medium saucepan set over medium-high heat, bring the corncob, corn kernels and milk to a simmer. Reduce the heat to low and cool until the kernels are tender, about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and discard the corncob. Pour the milk and corn kernels into a blender and purée until smooth, then strain through a fine-mesh sieve set over a medium bowl and set aside.

3. In a medium saucepan, bring the corn liquid to a simmer over medium heat. While whisking, add the polenta, a little at a time, until all of the polenta is added. Reduce the heat to low and continue whisking the polenta for 5 minutes, then stop stirring and cook the polenta until it is tender, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes (if it becomes stiff, add a few more tablespoons milk). Whisk in the butter, grated juniper and lemon zest and turn off the heat.

4. Make the bass: Preheat the oven to 350°. Place the fillets on a cutting board skin side up. Use a sharp knife to make four 1-inch slits across the skin of each fillet (this will help the skin from curling once it hits the hot pan). Season both sides of the bass fillets with salt and set aside for 10 minutes.

5. Heat a medium cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add the oil and then the bass fillets, skin side down. Use a fish spatula to press the flesh flat so the fillet doesn’t curl. Once the fish stays flat without threatening to curl in the middle, after about 3 minutes, reduce the heat to medium and continue cooking until the edges become golden, about 5 minutes. Place the fish in the oven and cook until it’s opaque and easily flakes when prodded with a fork, about 5 minutes longer. Return the fish to the stovetop and set over medium heat. Baste the fish with the butter, then flip the fillets over and set aside on a plate to rest for 1 minute.

6. Place a generous spoonful of polenta on each of two plates. Make a well in the center and fill with some of the tomato compote. Set the fish on top, sprinkle with basil and drizzle with olive oil, then serve.

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