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How to properly flavor a dish is considered, by most of us, to be a vexing affair. In the kitchen, I’ve got a piece of meat, or a bowl of pasta, or a steaming vegetable, set before me; how do I season these in a surprising way? One often overlooked member of culinary society has the answer, and he, or she, is the spice adviser. In this case, he is Lior Lev Sercarz, of La Boîte, in midtown Manhattan. Professional chefs turn to Sercarz for new flavors and textures and emotions—recently, it was Ignacio Mattos of the esteemed restaurant Estela, on the Lower East Side. While creating a new spice blend, the conversation between chef and spice adviser becomes a flurry of ideas that results in a tiny jar filled with, might I say, magic.
Potential substitutes for herring: whole Boston mackerel, two sardines, or 3-4-oz. portions of swordfish filet for each person.
For the herring:
For the ajo blanco sauce:
Prepare the ajo blanco by blending all of the necessary ingredients (aside from the salt) together in a food processor until the mixture becomes smooth, like a mayonnaise. If it’s too loose and liquid-y, add more oil and mix. Season with salt to taste.
In a small saucepot, cover the raisins with white-wine vinegar and bring to a simmer, so that they plump. Set aside, cool, and reserve.
Gut the herring and make sure there are no scales. Pat the fish dry, and season with salt and the Estela spice blend.
Using a medium flame, heat up a black pan and place the herring on it. Cook for about two minutes on one side, and then check to make sure that it is nicely browned. Once it is, flip the fish over and cook for another two minutes.
Cut the cherry tomatoes in half. Season with a little bit of salt, olive oil, vinegar, and lemon zest. Add a few drops of lemon juice, insuring that the tomatoes are wet.
To serve: for each place setting, put a spoonful of ajo blanco onto the center of the dish and lay the herring onto it. Arrange the tomatoes around the fish, along with some of the raisins. Tear some fennel fronds and sprinkle atop it. Drizzle with olive oil.
The Estela Blend:
Combine all spices; keep in an airtight container.