Friday, March 13, 2009

Testing the Waters

I spent the last few Saturdays taking a cooking class at the Institute of Culinary Education. It was a five-week course meant to introduce us to the "Elements of Fine Cooking," which I couldn't see being a bad idea. The course was a great time, an air of camaraderie between the instructor, my classmates and myself was immediately evident and good times were had by all. I'm now far more proficient in the arts of roasting and hollandaise-making than I was before, though it would seem that I could use a bit more practice in the souffle-making arena.

I'm not sure whether it was confidence in my cooking gained from this class or a desire to test my culinary limits that inspired me to attempt a recipe from Eric Ripert. I'd have to say it's more likely the latter, considering this throwdown occurred a mere two weeks into my course. His cooking at Le Bernardin is unmatched - nowhere else in New York will one receive plate after flawless plate of impeccably prepared seafood, as refined and clean as any I've had. I dined there for lunch a couple of years ago, and it remains one of my most memorable meals ever - everything was just so perfect, from my himachi appetizer to my pineapply trio of desserts.

Dishes in fine dining restaurants, even those that appear to be straightforward and simplistic rarely are. Each layer of flavor has often been prepared in some complex fashion. The preparation time and ingredient lists are enough to turn most home cooks off, which is part of the appeal of eating in these establishments in the first place.

However, when a special occasion arises, and one that you have no desire to spend in a restaurant because everyone else in the world is spending that same special occasion in every restaurant, everywhere, the preparation and ingredient lists become less of an obstacle. Why not celebrate with a meal courtesy of the best seafood chef in New York City? And why not enjoy it in your own home, without the pretense of "fine dining?" Not to mention that on top of the fact that you're enjoying an excellent meal, in the comfort of your own home, to be enjoyed at your own pace, without the interruption of servers asking if you're finished

Though this recipe wasn't effortless, it wasn't quite as burdensome as you'd imagine; the most difficult aspect ended up being the timing, since I made all of the components right before we were to eat. And the end result exceeded my expectations (though admittedly, of my performance, not of the dish) - the snapper was cooked perfectly; crispy, delicately spiced skin blanketing perfectly cooked, flaky fish. The mushrooms were earthy, yet vibrant, and the whole dish was brought together by the sauce, which provided a wonderful tang with immense depth of flavor, at once brightening the mild fish and the mountain of mushrooms on top of which it sat.

So we sat down to a wonderful, sophisticated (not to mention rather nice to look at) meal, I gave myself a little pat on the back, and dug right in, immensely proud of creating an experience that would put most restaurants to shame.

Red Snapper and Shiitakes in Port Reduction
adapted from the Le Bernardin Cookbook recipe available on

For the sauce:
1 cups high quality port (the recipe suggests 10-year old, I'm not sure how old the port I used was)
1 cups high quality sherry vinegar
For the mushrooms:
2 1/4 teaspoons corn oil (I used canola oil - the high smoke point is what's important here)
1 pound fresh shiitake mushrooms, stems cut lengthwise into 1/4-inch-thick slices, caps halved if small or cut into 3 or 4 slices if large
2 branches fresh thyme
1 clove garlic, peeled and halved
1 large shallot, peeled and finely diced
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
Fine sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground white pepper, to taste
For the fish:
2 1/4 teaspoons corn oil
2 (6-ounce) red snapper fillets
1/8 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder
2 teaspoons minced fresh chives


For the sauce:
1. Bring the port to a boil in a medium-size heavy saucepan over medium-high heat. Lower the heat slightly and simmer until reduced to 1/2 cup (if using a gas stove, never let the flames extend above the bottom edge of the pan). Add the vinegar and simmer until reduced almost to a syrup consistency, lowering the heat as necessary to keep the sauce from burning around the edges—you 'll have around 3 1/2 tablespoons (10 1/2 teaspoons). (Note: The sauce can be made to this point up to 1 week ahead; cover and refrigerate.)

2. Heat 1 1/2 teaspoons of corn oil in a skillet and place over high heat until the oil is just smoking. Place the mushrooms, thyme, and garlic in the skillet and lower the heat to medium. Sauté until browned, about 4 minutes. Turn the heat to low and add the shallot and 1 tablespoons of butter to the skillets. Season with salt and pepper. Cook until the shallot is softened and the mushrooms are tender, about 6 minutes more. Discard the garlic and thyme. (Note: The mushrooms can be made to this point up to 1 day ahead; cover and refrigerate).

3. Season both sides of the snapper with salt and pepper. Sprinkle the five-spice powder over the skin and rub it into the fish. Clean the skillet and add the remaining tablespoon of corn oil. Place over high heat until the oil is just smoking. Add the snapper to the skillet, skin side down, and briefly hold the fillets down with a spatula to prevent the skin from shrinking. Sauté until the bottom of the fillets are dark and crusted, about 5 minutes. Turn and cook for about 5 minutes longer, until a metal skewer inserted into the fish for 5 seconds is met with medium resistance and feels warm when touched to your lip. Keep the fillets warm until you're ready to plate.

4. Meanwhile, if mushrooms had been prepared ahead of time, set them in a skillet to reheat. Bring the sauce to a boil over high heat. Cut the remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons of butter in to 1/2-inch pieces. Lift the saucepan a few inches above the heat and add the butter. Shake the pan back and forth until the butter is melted and incorporated into the sauce; this will take about 3 minutes. Do not stir or whisk the butter into the sauce. The sauce will be very shiny and clear.*

5. To serve, stir the chives into the mushrooms. Divide the mushrooms evenly among the two large plates, arranging them in the center of each plate. Top the mushroom mountain with the snapper. Drizzle the sauce around the mushrooms and serve immediately.

* Seriously, don't stir it - I grew impatient at this point, didn't read the instructions closely enough and stirred the butter in; this caused a bit of separation that I think would have been avoided had I just been patient - regardless, it tasted divine.

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