Well, I’m finally back at work.
This past week has been totally hectic. Besides for all the staff meetings and lesson planning, I’ve had quite a few last minute things that needed to be taken care of before the end of summer. Normally, under this type of pressure, I don’t get too stressed, but I’ve been feeling it just a tad lately.
After this morning, though, everything just fell back into place. The long summer makes me forget how much I love teaching, but as soon as I get to interact with students, I’m reminded exactly why all this work is important.
I’ve thought, many times, about the similarities between the satisfaction I get from teaching, and from sharing my cooking with others. In both cases, there’s always the thrill of a new idea, or a new taste, lighting up the face of the one experiencing it for the first time. There’s also the fact that learning for its own sake is extremely meaningful, and great food, well, is great food. I consider it a privilege being the one to open someone’s eyes to something novel, something which will, hopefully, enrich their life.
The dish I made this past week was eye-opening in quite a few ways. For starters, it was a beautiful plate to look at, and tasted even better than it looked. Let me show you how I put it together.
First, the marinade for the salmon.
That’s the zest of a whole navel orange, half a lime, lemon, and quarter of a grapefruit. With that, I mixed in a third of a cup of kosher salt, two tablespoons of sugar, and a teaspoon of white pepper. The mixture of salt and sugar actually cure the fish, the result of which you’ll see in just a second.
Here’s the fish after I trimmed it to size, and removed all the pin-bones, skin and dark flesh from the skin side of the meat.
At this point, I do feel the need to apologize for the plain old ridiculous lack of picture quality that is assaulting your eyeballs right now. I didn’t have my usual camera on hand, having left it somewhere, so my shaky iPhone had to pinch hit.
I spread half of the marinade mixture onto a piece of aluminum foil a little longer than my piece of salmon-
then placed the salmon in the foil and sprinkled the remaining mixture on top. This whole business got wrapped up nice and tight and placed in the fridge for somewhere between two and three hours.
Meanwhile, I prepped the citrus powder, orange confit and watercress coulis, all very simple.
I began boiling a large pot of heavily salted water to blanch the watercress. Keller notes that for blanching, the “big pot” method is always the best. It helps the water maintain a boil even after you add the cool veggies, and the addition of salt not only evenly seasons them, but also helps their color from fading.
After the watercress finished cooking, I strained it into a chinois and set it into a pot of ice water to stop the cooking process. Once it cooled, I put it in the blender with enough water to help the blade turn, and set it on high for a minute or two. Then I pushed it through a tamis and reserved the now-sauce for the final plating, which you will see in a second.
For the oranges, I peeled the four navel oranges I had previously zested, removing all of the bitter white pith, before carefully segmenting them into a large bowl.
I love navel oranges. When they’re good, they are one of my favorite refreshing treats. And there’s almost nothing as annoying as buying a large bag of them from the supermarket, only to come home and discover that they’re duds.
These guys got a bath in some warm simple syrup, with a dash of white wine vinegar. Once they had cooled down to room temp, the oranges were essentially a fresher and better tasting variety of the canned kind you buy in syrup.
Finally, the citrus powder.
Keller does have a word or two to say about the additions of powders to a finished dish. When done properly, they add a nice visual flair, and a new aromatic dimension to the plate. Grant Achatz writes, in his introduction to Alinea, that when he worked at The French Laundry, he had assumed that these mixes of spices and powders were added purely for visual intrigue. It was only later that he realized the importance that smells play in our ability to taste food. While with our tongues we can only differentiate between four or five different types of taste, we are able to distinguish between hundreds or thousands of different smells. For that reason, many of the dishes served at Alinea are presented on things like pillows of lavender air, or on sticks of burning cinnamon, or skewered by a vanilla bean.
The citrus powder consisted of the following zests-
That’s lime, orange, lemon, and a little grapefruit. They were all supposed to be julienned, but I was having a hard time getting all the lime zest of cleanly, which did turn out to be a little problem at the end of the day.
All that zest was placed in the microwave at medium power for 8-10 minutes. However, the pieces were different sizes, and I, like the moron who doesn’t want to follow instructions that I am, didn’t realize that they were going to cook at different speeds. This meant that while I was trying to make sure that all of them were dried out enough, the smaller ones started to smoke and burn. All this meant that I had to pick out the bad specimens, and that I might have overdone the rest of them slightly. Here’s what they looked like straight out of the nuker.
I put all this in my little Cuisinart food prep, which I try to use as a spice grinder. I need to just go out and get a coffee grinder and designate it for spices, because I was not at all thrilled with how the powder turned out, i.e., not at all powdery.
It sure did smell great, but I think that the taste was a little marred because of the slightly grainier texture. Next time. Next time.
Now to finish the fish.
That’s what it looked like coming out of the fridge a few hours later. Notice all of the juice that the salt had pulled out of the salmon. It had a texture that was almost like smoked salmon, and was now ready to be poached in a gentle bath of olive oil.
Besides for the coffee/spice grinder which I desperately need, I could also use a more accurate, instant-read thermometer. This probe that was gauging the temperature of the oil for me was a little too slow, and the junky, old school mercury candy deal I tried didn’t want to stay put in the pot. (In case they’re listening, I hope the folks at ThermoWorks know that I’m not above accepting corporate sponsorships!) What resulted was a some poached salmon that was a little more cooked on the bottom than I would have liked, but was nevertheless very succulent.
Here is what the finished product looked like.
The dish prepared in The French Laundry is done, as with all the dishes, with extremely exacting proportions. The fish must be sliced into 8 exact portions, from the center of a side of salmon, discarding, or saving the extra pieces for another use. Since I hadn’t planned far enough in advance to make a second salmon dish, I was a little less precise with the serving sizes. Also, it was supposed to be topped with beluga caviar, which I’m sure is delicious, but is not kosher. I’m a little ashamed to tell you which cheap kosher brand I used in its place, but honestly, it really did add to the dish, in my opinion.
Besides for the visual beauty of this dish, its taste was subtle, well balanced and delicate. While I was thinking earlier about the comparison between the transmission of ideas and tastes, I realized why I wasn’t as pleased with this dish as I felt I should have been. A salmon preparation like poaching, and using bright, clean flavors of citrus and fresh greens, really needs to be done with the absolute best product possible. I was in a bit of a stress-rush when I picked out that side of salmon, and truth be told, it wasn’t my first choice in terms of freshness. But it was what was readily available, and I didn’t have the time to wait to speak with the fish monger directly. This dish suffered the same fate, in my mind, as a subliminally beautiful poem, recited by heart, but with a line or two paraphrased incorrectly.
I look forward to making this again, and will be careful that it turns out perfectly next time. I now think I understand the level of perfection that Chef Keller is known for, and why it is to credit for the absolute success of all his establishments. If only there were kosher restaurants around here that we could count on to be as good…
Until next time,