Like I said last time, the menu fundamentally changes only every two weeks. Otherwise, we trade off: one team does two of the four courses of a full menu, the other team does the other two. The following week we switch. I should also note (if I haven't already) that everything we make (or at least all the core recipes) are dishes that are made in the school's restaurant, L'Ecole. That's not to say that they are always on the menu; it changes seasonally. But everything has been on there at one point and may well return. For instance, the potato salad and greens that I made last week"”and that some other guys made today"”is currently on the L'Ecole menu.
Anyway, this week it was my turn to do the fish course and the dessert. The fish was poached skate wing with vegetables and either a broth or a sauce. The dessert was crÃ¨me brulee and madeleines. Last week, we (they) did banana crÃ¨me brulee; this week I did coffee. Last week the fish was served in the broth almost like a soup. But chef also demoed how to do it with a sauce, which I actually preferred, so I did it that way. It's actually quite good in the broth, and makes for an arguably more dramatic presentation. I have to say, this was a tasty dish, and I don't like fish. Chef said you could use just about any lean white fish for this dish. He suggested cod, flounder and halibut in particular. Fatty or oily fish like salmon or trout should be avoided.
Once again we had to survey the scene and figure out in what order to do things. Nothing that I had to do really took all that long a time except the broth, or more accurately, the court bouillon. Court bouillon is essentially a veg stock with some enormous amount of booze, in this case a whole liter of vermouth. Actually, other books I have say that booze is not essential to court bouillon. Anyway, we used it.
Emincer onion, fennel, ginger then sweat in a little oil, no color, just soften them up. Add the vermouth, reduce by half. Add chicken stock plus lots more aromatics: lemongrass, peppercorns, tarragon, saffron (Lord, the school gets good saffron; yum!), bay leaves, anise, whole cloves, crushed garlic, kafir leaves, and lemon peel. That reduces for a while. The recipe said 20 minutes but we had it on for well over an hour. It develops a really huge flavor. When you take it off the flame, add a big heap of chopped cilantro. You don't want that in the broth the whole time or it will dominate. Then strain through a chinois. Here it is before it was strained:
Meanwhile, I got my crÃ¨me brulee ready. Milk plus cream plus sugar on the fire, boil, lower heat, reduce by half, add coffee extract a little at a time to taste. Another way to do it is to put cracked coffee beans in there and then strain it but this might make it bitter. Coffee extract won't. There are of course many different ways we could have flavored it. Chef suggest pistachio, but I thought not since the madeleines would have nut in them. Anyway, use your imagination.
Now, this is important. You get some egg yolks, lots of them (nine in my case) and beat them until they are pale. This takes forever. You are getting air in there. Then you add a little of the milk/cream/sugar reduction and just stir in, do not whisk. I whisked. Mistake. It makes it too frothy and then when you cook it you don't get that glassy surface on top that you are going for. The risk is that, when you later put in the sugar to caramelize, the little pock marks will act like sinks that the sugar dips down into, and you can't present a smooth surface. As it happens, this did not happen to me: the tops were like glass, so my mistake was hidden. Nonetheless, I immortalized it on film as a reminder.
Anyway, after you add a little and stir (which attentive readers will recall is called "tamper") you add the rest and stir.
We did not have ramekins so we used little tin cups to do the crÃ¨me brulee. This proved to our benefit since I made 12 but only four were eaten, so we got to take the rest home. You put your little tin cups (or ramekins) into a hotel pan, then ladle the custard into each one while you have water on the stove boiling. Pour some of the water into the hotel pan so that it comes well up the sides of the cups/ramekins. Then the hotel pans go into the oven and cook for a long time. I was surprised at how long it took. Well over an hour until they were set: slightly jiggly but not the least bit runny.
Another important thing to know is what kind of sugar to use. The best kind is the light brown stuff that is coarse, the grain consistency of kosher salt. Last week, they did the torch method, but chef had me use the salamander. That, frankly, worked much better. Very little dark spotting and a nice even melt. A perfect ice-skating rink surface. Really delicious as well.
Ok, the other thing I had to prep was the madeleine. I already had a ton of egg whites from separating eggs for the crÃ¨me brulee. I actually did not need all that I had. I melted some chocolate using a double boiler, mixed together the flour, sugar and ground nuts (walnut and macadamia, in this case, but you could use anything). We also did a buerre noisette, which is just a hunk of butter melted and gently browned in a pan. It should look a nice mid-brown color. Mix all that stuff together; once mixed it will look dark brown like the chocolate and will be very gooey.
Then put in a pastry bag and fill the little madeleine molds, which by the way need to be greased with butter.
I made a horrific mess with the pastry bag. I had not used one in a long time. It was not pretty. Much chaos. Lost lots of mix out the top. Got a great deal on my recipe binder, and even some into a square boy full of carefully star-cut carrots (which I later washed). Embarrassing. But I got the job done.
These bake rather quickly, 10 minutes or so.
As you can see, some of them have been eaten. The eaters all immediately went home and wrote seven volumes worth of memoirs.
The other team was making the lamb and the potato salad. The latter they did exactly the same. The lamb was different. They kept the racks whole and browned them in a pan using to additional fat, just rendering some of the racks' own fat layer (S&P first, of course). Then they rubbed a layer of mustard on the fatbacks (but not on the rest of the lamb) and sprinkled bread crumbs on that. It cooked the rest of the way in the oven.
It was good, but I thought too rare. Chef liked it that way, though.
Also, instead of doing the asparagus like last week, Chef taught us a ratatouille. He was adamant about seasonal cooking. Asparagus was in the book so he taught it but he said it's always better to cook seasonally if you can and a veg stew with an eggplant base was quite seasonal.
This was fairly easy. Macedoine eggplant, onion, fennel (optional), and peppers (green, red and yellow). Everything should be the same amount except the eggplant which can be 2x (not of the whole rest of the stuff but 2x another single portion). Caramelize in separate pans (the peppers can all go together) because they cook at different rates. Combine when you get good browning on all. Add pureed canned tomatoes (fresh tomatoes this time of year are flavorless). Put in oven for a good long while (I think it was in there for at least an hour).
You can sort of see it plated above. We put it in a ring mold and built it up into a cylinder, then rested the lamb bones on that.
Now, for the fish course, first I had to filet the skate wings. This is a gnarly pre-historic-looking bottom-dweller. Very slimy and spiny also.
It gets butchered much like a flat fish, something I have not done in about six months. Just as each flat fish will yield four filets"”two quite thick (the ones on the top side), the other two bottom ones rather thin"”this does too. Also like the flat fish, its bones are rather hard and the skin is very tough. Should be easy, then, right?
Nonetheless, I managed to blow it on my first one. My knife went right though the cartilage that I was trying to separate from the filet. In the course of trying to shave that off, I lost a lot of fish. But I did fine on the other three, quite well, if I say so myself.
Now, we poached this fish. That is, we got some of the court bouillon and heated it in a pan"”a good, deep pool of it. Bring it to a near boil then add the seasoned fish. The liquid should slightly bubble but not be at a rolling boil. You don't even turn the fish. Just keep spooning liquid over it until all sign of translucency is gone. Then it is cooked.
Meanwhile you should have a garnish ready. Ours was star-cut carrots, potato balls, leeks and tomato. To make a star-carrot, you take this little tool called a channel knife and run it down the sides of the carrots; it cuts out a little groove. Then just slice the carrots. The leeks just slice on the bias. The tomatoes were seeded and quartered. The potato balls were just cored out of red bliss potatoes with a Parisian scoop. Cook the carrots, leeks and potatoes a l'anglaise and shock. When it's time to cook the fish, throw all that veg into a pan, add a little butter and court bouillon, some S&P and toss for a while over low heat.
OK, this is where paths diverge. Last week, they plated it in bowls. Fish first, veg to the side, lots of broth on top. Not quite a soup, but way more (and way more runny) than a sauce. I did it a bit differently. After taking out the skate, I turned up the heat on the broth in the pan to high and reduced it with vigor. When it started to get thick, I added some butter and few drops of lemon juice. Then I spooned that over the skate. I don't think it looked as pretty as last week, but the flavor was quite intense.
So the full four course meal would look like this, in this order:
This was really delicious. Skate is hard to find, I gather, it but is worth trying with some white fish or other. Maybe I am growing up but I never liked fish much but I loved this.