Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Like A Fish Out of Water

There are times during some classes that I ask myself – why am I learning this? How is this technique relevant to modern cooking and tastes. Chef will walk through a recipe and enlighten us about preparations that are old-fashioned that today’s chefs wouldn’t normally use – but he will demonstrate them nonetheless. So, again I ask myself, why should I learn this or that? I wasn’t able to answer that question when I first started culinary school but now after entering my mid-way point for Level 1 – I think I can answer it comfortably now.

The conclusion I’ve arrived at is French cuisine teaches us technique, methodology, preciseness, and gives the student strict guidance to rules that have been developed and perfected for many hundreds of years. This baseline education is teaching me to learn how to prep properly, to carefully preserve food from contamination, to organize my tasks and to multi-task and think like a chef. All of this is not easy to master, but repetition and constant practice are making these skills more innate. Walking into culinary school I consciously left what I knew about food and food preparation at the door. I wanted to be completely open to learning and understanding why I was doing what I was doing and why. So, why learn these “old-fashioned” recipes… because they teach us to evolve and create beyond them. That’s the real beauty to education – it motivates your brain to think and consider other options while maintaining a consistently prepared dish.

This week is all about fish and on Friday – shellfish! Roundfish, flatfish, saltwater, freshwater, fatty, lean, farmed, wild caught, over-fished, filets, darnes (cut into vertical steaks – like salmon), skin on, skin off, deep-fried, grilled, poached, breaded, braised, and that’s not even considering the multitude of fish species!

We began by learning how to fillet a roundfish, in this case we had a bass and trout for the two recipes we were going to prepare. This was my first time with a fillet knife – let’s just say not the easiest thing to master! Filleting the bass was tricky but manageable, filleting the smaller trout was harder – Chef told us filleting smaller fish is much harder than filleting larger fish. Once we filleted our fish we immediately kept them in a bowl over ice and then we transfered that bowl into the refrigerator.

We prepared our bass en papillote (cooked in sealed parchment paper). The fish steams, slightly braises and roasted in the oven with aromatic vegetables and earthy mushroom duxelles. I’ve cooked fish in parchment before, it is fun to do and actually quite easy. The trick is to cut your parchment into a heart-shape, and fold it over. When ready to cook, open up the heart-shaped parchment, we placed a few tablespoons of prepared and cooked duxelles and tomato fondue. On top of that the fillet, seasoned with salt and pepper and some olive oil and a teaspoon of good white wine. Over the fish we had an al dente cooked julienne of celery, carrots and leeks. Finish with a sprig of thyme, brush the edge of parchment with egg whites, fold over and seal with careful folds going all around the fish to create a perfectly sealed pouch. Rub a little oil on top of the parchment and into the oven at 450 degrees for a total of 9 minutes.

At the 7 minute point we poked a small hole into the puffed, golden parchment and let it cook for 2 more minutes. The beauty of fish cooked in parchment is that it makes an intriguing presentation at tableside. Plate the parchment pouch on to a hot plate and serve immediately. You can open it for your guests or let them open their own – the aroma escapes into a plume of aromatic flavors, the fish is perfectly cooked, light, healthy and delicious.

Our next dish to prepare was Filet de Truite Sauté à la Grenobloise (Sautéed Trout, Grenoble Style). The trout was prepared à la meunière – this method can be used for many types of fish either whole or portioned. À la meunière translates into “miller’s wife” and the fish is floured lightly and fried in butter. We finished the brown butter sauce with capers, lemon, parsley and some crisp buttery croutons that we prepped ahead.

On to last night’s lesson – flatfish – not the most attractive of the bunch but nonetheless tasty if prepared right. Learning to fillet a flounder was quite easy actually, much easier then the roundfish and the bonus is you get four fillets instead of just two.

We prepared two recipes: Goujonettes de Limande aux deux Sauces and Filet to Limande Bonne Femme. The first recipe is breaded flounder, deep-fried served with two sauce – a Rémoulade and a sweet red pepper sauce (Sauce aux Poivrons Rouges). The Filet to Limande Bonne Femme is Braised Flounder with White Wine, Shallots and Cream – this was my last recipe for the night and the fillets we had which were taken from the bottom side of the flounder were very small and delicate and unfortunately they became overcooked. Hey, you can’t win them all!

Let me highlight the most important points of the first recipe – we breaded the flounder which was cut into finger-sized portions (think delicate fish sticks a/k/a goujonettes). For the coating which is called à l’anglaise – the procedure is to dip the fish in flour then dust off excess, then beaten egg and oil, then into fresh breadcrumbs. We fried the goujonettes in 350 degree vegetable oil for about 2- 3 minutes to crispy lusciousness. Served with a waffle-cut and deep fried potato basket, the Rémoulade and Sauce aux Poivrons Rouges – it was the most sophisticated fish-fry I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating!

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