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Recipe by John Skorepa, executive chef, Pomegranate Russian-Georgian Restaurant

I have a long and checkered career. After graduating from San Diego State with a BS in biology, I worked in the plumbing and mechanical business for 28 years. I built a lot of restaurants.

Because of my scientific background, I write everything down. At the end of the day — or the end of the dish, you might say — I try to analyze everything. I have one principle that I truly believe in: you have to allow yourself the privilege of failure. If at first something doesn’t work out, you owe it to yourself to figure out how and why it didn’t work. The stuff in cookbooks — people think it came to them by divine inspiration, all of a piece. But I doubt that. It’s just trial and error.

I’ve got all kinds of books on food, and I read cookbooks like most people read novels. I usually never cook what I read about, but you’d be surprised at what’s tucked into the corner of those recipes that’s going to help you out. Just reading the lists of ingredients... Take this one day I was reading a can of pie cherries. The list of ingredients had: “beets, for color.” I have some food chemistry books, so I looked up “beets.” It turns out that when you cook cherries, they turn brown. But beets turn red when you acidify them. Now, I use that principle to keep my borsht very, very red.

Do I cook when I’m not working? I’m always working. I come into the restaurant at eight in the morning and leave at ten at night. But I like to make ukha for recreation sometimes. I’m always exploring with food. I just fool. If I get a wild idea, then I try it. In some ways, cooking is like my plumbing and mechanical business. The fun wasn’t doing the work. It was designing the job.

INGREDIENTS

(serves about 6)

  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 3 medium fresh tomatoes, chopped
  • 3 small red potatoes, cut into
  • 1-inch chunks
  • 1 head of garlic
  • 3 carrots, peeled and julienned
  • 2–3 stalks celery, julienned
  • 1 parsnip — julienned
  • 1 leek, cut into large matchstick-size pieces
  • 1–2 tbsp. butter
  • 1/2 tbsp. Tukas hot pepper paste (no substitutes)
  • 2 large spoonfuls of Tukas tomato paste
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2–1 gallon good fish stock (see recipe below)
  • 1 pound cleaned shrimp
  • 1 pound tilapia filets cut into 6-ounce pieces
  • 1/2 cup good white wine
  • 1/2 bunch flat-leaf parsley, chopped
  • 1/2 bunch dill, chopped
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • lemons, sliced for serving

HOW TO DO IT

Chop onions, tomatoes, and potatoes, and slice garlic into thin wafers. Cut carrots, celery, and parsnips into matchstick-size pieces or run through a mandalin. Cut the leeks into slightly larger pieces or run through a mandalin on a slightly courser blade. Melt butter in a heavy

7–8-quart pot. Add onions and sauté until carmelized and slightly brown. Add the carrots and parsnip and cook for 1–2 minutes and then add celery and leeks. Cook only until the celery and leeks are hot. Add the garlic and cook for a minute or less, being careful not to burn it. Add the Tukas pastes and bay leaf and tomatoes.

Add the fish stock and potatoes and simmer until the potatoes are cooked (when you pinch the potatoes and they start to break up, they are finished cooking). Add the fish and shrimp and watch carefully. The instant they are cooked, remove from the heat. Add the wine, chopped parsley, and dill. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve with lemons, some really good bread, and some tomatoes, basil, garlic, and olive oil. Dip the bread in the soup and you’re in there.

Fish Stock

Makes 2 quarts

2 onions, chopped

2 carrots, chopped

2 stalks celery, with leaves, chopped

4 tablespoons olive oil

8–9 cups water

2 to 2 1/2 lbs of fish trimmings, heads, and bones, even shrimp shells

twist of lemon peel

1 bay leaf

2 cups white wine

salt and white pepper

Chop the vegetables. Add the olive oil to a large pot and sauté the vegetables over medium heat. When the vegetables are tender, add the water, fish trimmings, lemon peel, and bay leaf, and bring to a boil. Partially cover, and simmer over medium heat for 20–30 minutes. Add the wine and salt and pepper to taste. Cook for 5 more minutes. Freeze for later use if you wish.

Chef’s note: You can purchase Tukas pastes at North Park Produce.

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