Field Report:
Adventures of a Culinary Padawan
École des Techniques à la Cuisine
Lesson Sixteen: Fish


Dear Foodie Voyeur,

In the world of fish, there are two general types (not talking about shellfish or mammals, just fish): Flat and Round. By "flat," we mean things like skim the bottom of the ocean on the bellies, sometimes have two eyes on the top of their heads, and have evolved so their meaty bits form wing-like projections. "Round" fish are not literally round, but have the more common fish shape -- one filet on each side of the spine, with eyes on either sides of the head, and more paddle-like fins. In cross section, these are oval in shape. They are classified this way because preparing fish for cooking is similar, but these are the two basic shapes we need to worry about in terms of cutting or eviscerating.

First, use a pair of shears and cut off the fins all the way around the fish, as well as any flipper fins. On some round fish, these fins can be pointy and even lightly venemous, so be careful. Save these for fish stock.

Second, scale the fish. With smaller fish, the back of the knife can be used. be sure to get along the belly, above the head, along the tail, etc. Of course, if you plan to skin the fish, then you don't need to scale it, but beware the the scales cannot be cut through easily. This is "fish armor" and you might at least consider scraping the scales away from the areas where you plan to cut. (Don't save the scales for stock!)

Third step: You have a choice of gutting the fish first or not. Since the viscera tend to be bitter, letting it touch the flesh tends to impart a bitter flavor to which most cultures are adverse. So you can cut the guts and gills out -- which is what you'd do if you were cooking a whole fish. In general, you cut a slit from the anal hole up to the "chin" of the fish. If a larger hole is needed, cut all the way past the chin and release the flap of skin and flesh surrounding the belly. You scrape or snip out the various organs, snip out the gills, and throw them away. You rinse the fish -- you should only expose the fish to water before it's filleted. Since saltwater fish have their cell membranes filled with seabrine, exposing them to water will tend to bloat them. It changes their flavor and texture, and can even burst their cells, resulting in mushy fish.

Keep the fish in a metal bowl or foil on crushed ice to keep it cold. No water should contact the fish except when it's still whole and after you've gutted it. In general, all fish should be gutted immediately upon being taken out of the water.

We each got a sole, which has a white belly side and a dark, brown, mottled top side (the better to disguise itself on the ocean floor). The top side meat is a bit thicker than the bottom. We use a "utility" or "fillet" knife for this -- it's flexible, so you can put pressure against it and it will bend rather than poking through the meat or snapping. This is important, because basically, you are scraping against the bone to release the meat. Flat fish fillets are thin, so you want as much meat off them as possible.

The spine of the fish runs down the middle, in a line fron between the eyes to the tail. You can feel for it when you run your finger along the fish. Make a cut down to the bone, then envision it like a "gate" that swings outwards. Place the knife tip sideways alongside the bones and scrape downwards and toward you, pulling gently up at the meat. Keep scraping till you reach the edge of the fish, then cut through the skin to release. Repeat on the other "gate," then turn the fish over and repeat on the thinner meat side. Save all the bones and head, etc. for stock. Soak them in some cold water for 10 minutes to "degorge" the blood before cooking them.

To skin the fish, put it on the board skin side down, tail end toward you, and make a cut through the flesh -- about an inch from the end of the tail -- at an angle away from you to make a little handle. Hold that bit of flesh (can use a damp towel if you can't get a good grip) and with a side-to-side sawing motion cutting away from you, cut beneath the fillet, separating the skin from the flesh. The skin can be saved for stock, too.

For fish with beautiful skin like a striped bass, it's good to keep the skin on. Additionally, if you plan to grill the fillets, it's advisable to keep the skin, for support. So scale it completely and rinse.

The structure of the fish is similar to a flat fish, but the fillets are narrower and thicker. To get them off the bones, they are normally accessed by cutting along the dorsal (back) ridge on top of the fish. Slide your knife down, parallel to the board, scraping along the spiney bones as you work toward the spinal column. Once you get there, you will need to get scrape/cut around the round bit of bone, then finish by continuing to scrape and lift. It's easier if you cut toward yourself, and go slowly! Repeat on the other side.

Another way of filleting a round fish it to cut off the head, then run your knife perpendicular to the direction of the fish, start near the head and cut down along the bones till you reach the tail. Your choice, or do a combination of these. In both the flat and round fish, the second side is harder to fillet than the first, simply because you've lost the support and height of the first fillet. So the Jedi Master suggested using the traditional head-on method on the first side, then cutting off the head and removing the other fillet the second way. As always, save the bones and trimmings for stock!

Bonne Femme
You remember from the chicken lesson, that anything called Bonne Femme it has mushrooms in it. For this one, you need to get double cream, or to heat cream till it's reduced to half the volume. At the same time, rub a sauteuse with butter, then layer with mushrooms (émincer) and shallots (ciséler), to which 40 mL of white wine and 250 mL of fish fumet is added. Place the fish fillets on a plate and season the skin side, then roll them up. If you start at the head end and roll to the tail, it will look layered like the center part of a croissant. Do it the other way if you prefer, and rest them on the vegetables. The liquid should come about halfway up the sole fillets, but if not, add a bit more if you wish. Top with a parchment lid and simmer till the fish is mostly white -- there should be a raw spot at the top of the fillet about one inch in diameter. It will continue cooking on standing, so remove the fillets now (if your fillets are all different sizes, simply remove the smaller ones as they cook to the right degree of doneness). Place on a plate and cover with foil to keep warm.

When the sole is done, put the double cream into the vegetable and stock mixture and simmer down till nappant, then pour over your plates sold fillets. Heat under a salamander or in the broiler for a few seconds till a glaçage forms -- a shiny coating, slightly browned on the edges. Dust with finely minced parsley. Rich, heavy sauce, but hey, you're eating fish! Go ahead!

En Papillote
Ever since aluminum foil sheets became commonly available, this dish has normally been cooked in foil, rather than in parchment paper. The method is the same though, and it's always a good idea to do it the classic way first, before modifying too much. It's rather pretty on parchment, and your sweetie and guests will think you are a frickin' genius!

Take a large sheet of parchment, fold it in half and cut out a heart shape. Don't know why, but this is the classic shape... since it's folded in half, you cut one lobe of the heart, you know how. Open it up and butter the center, not rubbing the butter onto the edges, which will be sealed with eggwhites later. On one half of the heart, hard up to the center, place a spoonful of tomate concassé cooked till dry with garlic and shallots, a spoonful of duxelles, then place the fish fillet skin side up over the piles. Top with julienne of leeks, celery, and carrots. Dribble a bit of white wine or lemon juice over it all, then paint eggwhite all around the edges. Fold the other lobe of the heart over everything and fold/crimp to seal, all the way around. Paint with more eggwhite to make sure it's sealed, then paint with some butter or oil on top so that the paper browns nicely.

Put the parcels on a baking sheet, then place in a hot, hot, hot oven (450°F) for about 7 minutes, till the parcel puffs up like a balloon. Rush it to the table (the parcels will deflate if you wait too long), so that the diner can enjoy the presentation and the smell as you slice the package open. Mmmm.

Oh, by the way, prior to putting the fish into the papillote, you can grill quadrillage marks on it, skin side only. It doesn't take long, only enough to gain the marks. It's pretty and firms up the skin, if you like to eat the skin. I do.

It was a holiday weekend coming up, so the Jedi gave away any unused fish and fillets. I grabbed as many as I could and had fun evicerating (what a great word!), filleting and cooking up the extra fish once I got into my own kitchen. I also got extra fish from other groups. My partner is the back-up Lamas coach for her friend, who had dilated 6 cm that night! She ran off, leaving everything to me. My former partner got sick, and left about halfway through the class, and again, bequested her efforts to me. Others were going away for the weekend adn couldn't take the leftovers with them. So I have a lot of fish in my 'fridge! I did call Mom, who told me to salt it and bake it till just opaque, then refrigerate. She'll pick up her share in a few days. So I was exhausted, damp and smelled of fish ...

Happy 4th of July!

With Love,
Susu, the Culinary Padawan

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