HOOKED ON FISH

Sep 19th, 2012

As it appeared in the CB Gazette, 8/30/12

Running a cooking school on the coast, it is just a natural expectation that we do a fair amount of fish. And we do.

Let’s start at the beginning. Perfection is what is needed to convert a fish skeptic or to change the minds of those who “have had a bad fish experience.” We believe starting with our local varieties is the first step, since they are bound to be freshest. Then give fish the respect it deserves by keeping it as fresh as possible while holding or in preparation, and lastly, cooking “au point.” We think it is a special skill to cook fish to the point of perfection. The goal is “to the point” or perfectly done! In other words, the point at which both flavor and texture are just right!

So I will do my best to describe cooking a first class fillet using a couple different techniques.

To begin with, success is a bit easier when we start with a fatty fish with very flavorful fat, such as salmon. The catch from the pacific and in the Northwest waters is unique due to the water temperature and currents. We can usually count on more fat of the native species to allow more aggressive cooking preparations. And they may be served with highly flavored condiments such as chutneys and paired with more earthy wines, than a more delicate fish.

So before you decide what cooking method and accompaniments to put on the menu, find out exactly what is available. Shop! It is amazing how quickly the catch of the day turns over. The waters are being regulated and everything isn’t always available when you need it. If it is, ask questions to learn when it was caught and/or if previously frozen. Take along a way to bring home your choice from the grocery. You must know that fish and seafood demand proper handling once they are caught. The fishers do their job, and so do the grocers. So why not take along an insulated pack to carry your purchase home in. Every minute left in temperatures above 32˚F diminishes quality. Once home, continue the 32˚F atmosphere by packing in ice while holding in the fridge. Again, put over ice while you work in preparation at room temperature, and finally, when marinating or holding for later cooking, keep ice nearby to help lower the refrigerator’s average temp, typically, 38˚F.

If you choose salmon, you might ask for a block cut when it is caught prior to taking the long journey back to their birthplace to spawn. You see they eat ravenously to build fat. This will enable them to make the long journey. They get much leaner closer to their destination.  By catching them just before they enter the river, you can cut them straight down the middle of each side, then into blocks of 4-6 ounces, and know that both the belly and back pieces will taste and cook the same.

These fish are prime for the two step method of cooking. We start by skinning the fish or not, but season the skin side generously with salt, pepper and coriander (my personal favorite for salmon). The first step is to get a heavy bottom skillet up to temperature, as high as you can before adding the cooking oil. Then add a little grape seed oil, our pick for the qualities of high smoke point, neutral flavor, and its healthy benefit of omega 3’s. Fish goes in as the oil lightly shimmers, placing one at the handle of the pan and going clockwise around the pan until filled but fish is not touching each other. This way you know what went in first second, third, etc.

Don’t try to move or manipulate the fillets for the first 30-50 seconds. Give the fish a chance to crust up on the cooking side. All food is pretty wet and when placed into a hot pan, it will stick until it is crusty and the water on the surface has evaporated. Then it will release itself allowing you to remove it without tearing the flesh. Out of the pan, placing it crispy side up on a waiting cooking sheet, and you are ready for the second cook-step.  Using the oven actually helps you manage the process as you strive to cook it to “the point.” You now have a little window of time to finish cooking other menu items. Clearly to cook fish properly, you need to focus only on the fish; no distractions. Just before needed then, place the pan of fish into a 400˚- 450˚ F oven, for about 3-5 minutes. For the record, you will know after doing this a few times with the same species and same size fillet, your own pans and your oven, just how long it will take. It is prudent to set your timer lower than you think it will take; you can always add on. The goal, of course, is to pull the fish a little before it reaches “the point,” so that you can allow it to continue to cook, but not over-cook, on the serving plate.

So what to look for in a perfectly cooked fillet? Along with timing and temping, I go by feel. The center of the fish will respond to my pressure with a little push back, while pinching the sides and thinner edges, it will begin to break along the natural layers of the muscle. The temperature for done fish is about 140-145˚F. I would pull it before that, hoping for a good 60-90 seconds of further cooking after I pull from the oven. A couple signs of going past this point are the appearance of a white milky secretion and a fishy smell. This is the protein in the fish rising to the surface as it gets too hot. Pull it out before this point whenever possible. Over cooking is one sure fire way to achieve a fishy result. We tend to believe fish that smells fishy is old, but it could just be overcooked.

Planking is a traditional Northwest-style of cooking fish, utilizing a variety of aromatic woods, usually cedar, alder or fruit wood. These are untreated pieces of hard woods, cut into any shape that will support the size of the item to be cooked. Most cooks recommend soaking the planks for approximately 30 minutes or longer in water so that the wood absorbs enough water to inhibit the plank from catching fire, while on the outdoor grill over direct flames. Water soaked wood will smoke rather than catch fire. We don’t soak planks for those 4-6 ounce fillets we cook in our oven, because they won’t be in the oven long enough to catch fire, and the wood aromatics are greater with dry wood. We generally brush a little cooking oil on the wood before placing the fish on top and season with sea salt, ground coriander and other aromatics.

For grilling outdoors, place the water soaked plank with fish directly on the preheated grill and cover. Check after 10 minutes. The fish should be opaque throughout before removing. Use the same touch and visual as before.

As I said, because the wood plank is water soaked before cooking it generates a small amount of smoke that imparts a subtle but rich flavor, that with the fat from the fish, gives a great mouth feel. You can see why this might create a nice foundation for introducing other flavors and interesting condiments such as salsas, chutneys, not to mention full bodied wines. We have enjoyed other planked creations using dark meat chicken or turkey, lamb and pork. Always the key to success is working with foods that have a fatty background to support the smoke-flavor.

Another popular Northwest fish preparation is to brine and smoke the fish. We do this then finish in the oven. The outcome is a smokier flavor than the planking method gives, and more caramelization from the sweet soy brine I use. I cannot describe this process without recalling the origin of the recipe and the first time I did this.

One summer I took a job in Alaska at a fishing lodge. It was at a high end fishing experience for the likes of the owner of Cabela’s sporting goods stores, who was there. The lodge itself was minimal and rustic! It was located on the Alagnak River, where one has to float plane in and out. I should have known right away I was in for a summer adventure that I would be talking about for a long time, when I could only call Lenore from a two-way radio phone, before cell phones and no wires. At the time, I also taught at North Community College in Seattle, and Sheldon, one of my students, former lumberjack retraining to be a chef, decided to come along to help. And turns out good for me that he did! Sheldon’s presence helped me get past some bumpy times when the guests and staffers started razing me and my way too citified demeanor for the rugged conditions of the lodge and tundra. After all, Sheldon, a 6’6’ native of Alaska, could not only speak the “language” of the area, he also gave anyone pause just by his presence.

So Sheldon and I fell into a routine of cooking starting around 4 in the morning after a night in our sleeping bags on a slab of cedar planks—in our guest rooms. It was never dark so I just plain lost track of time, but had to crank up the propane stove early enough to have scones and coffee cakes for breakfast. In no time, the guests were grooving on the food. So my confidence in my safety rose. Often we would meet the guests for their lunch break at the river’s edge and prepared fresh caught fish over the open fires, while the guides watched for bear with riffles.

Like the bears, I was in salmon heaven! So many in fact, you could almost reach in the river and pull one out with your bare hands, just like the bears. And so much fish that we put the smoke house to work on a daily basis. Sheldon shared his family recipe for brining then smoking the fish. It was very good. The way I like smoked fish. Not so strong that you don’t know what species of fish you started with, so smoky that smoke is all you taste. His recipe had the salmon in the brine about an hour before it was smoked slowly in the smokehouse. After a while I notice he would disappear every afternoon. I wondered if he was doing something he wanted to keep secret, so I followed him. There he was in the smokehouse with his tongue in the fish! I called out, “Sheldon, what are you doing?”

Then, quite like this gentle giant of a man, he said, “You know, Bob, we sense salt on the tip of our tongue and I was just trying to gauge whether the fish had enough salt yet before I take it out of the brine.” This was the way he had always done it, and his dad and grandfather before him. I asked if he thought he might “time it,” so we didn’t have to put our tongue on it, you know in favor of public food safety? We did and it was exactly 70 minutes in the brine.

That summer gave me the recipe I still use, with time in the brine only 70 minutes. But without a smoke house, I learned that I could smoke, indoors, top of the stove, (smoke detectors disabled for a while), and get the exact smokiness needed in just 4 minutes. I create a homemade smoker using dry hard wood chips in the bottom of a disposable foil pan, cover the chips with a cooking grate, place the fish on the grate, cover the pan with foil and place over high heat. When it starts smoking, time 2 minutes; turn off heat, time 2 more minutes. Remove to the back yard and take off foil lid. That is all the smoke needed to impart smoke without destroying the fresh salmon flavor. The fish is placed uncovered in the fridge for about an hour before I cook it, so that the wood residue has a chance to dissipate. You will see a coating of brown sticky residue on the foil lid, which I believe to be on the fish as well, so I let it rest uncovered to air it out before cooking and locking in the bitter wood residue.

Again, I like to use the stove top and oven method to finish the cooking. I sear one side of the smoked salmon in a hot sauté pan with a little grape seed oil. The caramelization forms quickly because of the sugar and soy in the brine. Into a 400˚F oven for about 4 minutes for 4 ounce fillet and it is cooked to perfection! I can almost taste it now.

Here is the recipe for brining salmon from that summer adventure in the Alaskan tundra so many years ago.

BRINE FOR SALMON TO BE SMOKED
1 quarts water
8 ounces soy sauce
½ cup brown sugar (light)
2 tablespoons sea salt
4 – 6 each six ounce portions of salmon fillets, block cut, bones removed

Method: Combine water, soy, sugar and salt in zip locking baggie. Mix to dissolve. Place salmon fillets into brine and close top of back, carefully removing air. Place onto pan of ice and refrigerate 70 minutes, no more, no less. Remove fish from brine and pat dry.

To Cold-Smoke:
1-2 cups dry hard wood chips (cherry, hickory, apple, etc)
Salt, pepper, coriander–to taste

Method: Prepare smoker pan using desired dry wood chips on bottom under cooking rack. Place salmon onto rack. Place over heated outdoor grill, or on high heat indoors. When chips begin to smoke, cover pan tightly and start timing for 2 minutes. Turn off heat–walk outdoors if not already outside, and time for 2 additional minutes before removing cover. Remove salmon and place onto clean plate and refrigerate uncovered until needed, or at least for 30 minutes to allow bitter wood resins to dissipate.
To cook:
Pan-sear in pre-heated fry pan with small amount of grape seed oil or other high smoke point oil. Over high heat, add salmon for about 2 minutes or until starts to caramelize and lifts out of pan without tearing. Place seared side up on cookie sheet and bake in 400ºF -425 ºF oven for 4-7 minutes. Always check in 4–looking for the salmon to be about 140ºF in the center and starting to flake when sides are lightly pinched together. Fish will continue to “carry-over cook” a few more degrees. Season if needed and serve.

Suggested serving accompaniments: Bob’s Blackberry Ketchup; Stone fruit chutney
Suggested wines: Capitello Sauvignon Blanc, Durant Vineyard Pinot Noir Rose, J. Scott Petite Syrah, Sineann Abondante.