Fish should never smell fishy – it should smell like the ocean, have clear eyes, when pressed the flesh should bounce back and the gills should be red. These are all signs of a fresh fish. One exception, the skin on skate should be slimy. Slimy skate is good – go figure. On the Poissonier station we make four fish dishes using bass, flounder, skate and salmon – each dish gives us the opportunity to practice different cooking methods. The salmon is grilled, flounder braised, skate is sautéed and the bass is steamed in parchment paper – one of my favorite ways to cook fish.
Each fish dish is accompanied by either a delicate sauce, or prepared garniture. Our recipes are very involved with many steps to finalize the completed dish. On the night we prepared skate and flounder we made a fish fumet (stock) from the bones of the fish. The fumet is then added to other ingredients to make a sauce.
Filleting fish is still tricky for me – there are different methods for flat and round fish. The best thing to have is an extremely sharp filet knife. The blade is flexible allowing it to glide over the bones.
The night we made bass en papillote (in parchment) we started by making a tomato fondue and mushroom duxelles. Once those two items are complete we julienne carrots, leeks and celery and cook them a l’étuvée – while this is going on the bass, already filleted is marinating in thyme, pepper and olive oil.
The procedure for the bass is simple, cut a piece of parchment paper into a heart shape and fold it in half. Open the fold and at the center place some tomato fondue and duxelles in the center. Place the bass on top and then arrange the cooked vegetables on top with a sprig of thyme and douse with a tablespoon of white wine. Sealing the parchment paper is made easy by using some beaten egg white to stick the two sides together. Folding the edges and brushing the creases helps seal the parchment and allows the bass to steam properly and the parchment paper to expand. A little oil on top of the parchment will attract the heat and help brown the paper. Into a 425 degree oven and depending on the thickness of the fish we time ours for about 9 minutes.
We plate the golden brown packages on hot plates and Chef comes around and opens the parchment with his knife. He inhales the aroma that has been trapped inside, then tries the fish. Perfectly cooked bass, he commented, but the garniture needed more attention, the mushrooms too salty the carrots needed to cook more. Each critique helps us make a mental note of what to pay careful attention to next time.
The old kitchen we cook in is hot as hell! Chef reminds us to drink water and hydrate ourselves. By the end of the night, I’m a sweaty mess and happy to be going home even though I smell like fish.