Saturday, October 17, 2009

Day 214 - Roasted Autumn Harvest Salad, Spiced Pepitas, How to Fillet a Flat Fish, Skinning a Fillet, Bouillabaisse, and Flan

After living in the same apartment on the Upper West Side for fifteen years, I moved to midtown last December, and I love my new place! Higher ceilings, generous-sized rooms, and a much upgraded kitchen. In fact, this cooking project would never have been possible in my old apartment.

If you've been following this blog, you might remember my across-the-hall neighbor, Michael, who, within days of meeting me, offered me his old electric mixer.

Tonight, I invited the entire seventh floor over for dinner. Yes, the entire seventh floor! OK, our building has only three apartments on each floor, so there were only five of us at dinner. But what a great group! Darcy and her 15 year old daughter, Taylor, brought a platter of
beautiful cheeses and toasts, and Michael and his partner, Terry, brought some incredible wines and champagne, all perfectly paired to my menu. (Michael has this cookbook, so he actually checked out the recipes in order to choose appropriate wines!)

Roasted Autumn Harvest Salad (p. 312)

This is one of those recipes that requires some significant prep (washing and drying arugula, scrubbing and/or peeling beets, parsnips, carrots, and shallots, making vinaigrette, making the spiced pepitas), but in the end, it comes together quickly and beautifully. There's nothing particularly challenging here, just straight-forward prepping and roasting.

The vinaigrette is the classic shallot vinaigrette (p. 356) with a twist: instead of sherry vinegar, you use apple cider vinegar. Very Autumn Harvest-y, right? It didn't really emulsify, so I wonder if there's something about the substitution that changes the emulsifability. (I made up that word.)

There are very specific measurements for how much vinaigrette to use when tossing each component, and I measured exactly. The numbers are perfect! Everything was delicately dressed, enough to enhance without overwhelming.

These vegetables work so well together, taste-wise, color-wise. They're all slightly sweet, with some extra depth from the roasting and the rosemary and a little kick from the spiced pepitas.

In my opinion, this was the highlight of the meal. It succeeds on all levels: tastes great, smells great, looks great.

By the way, it's an enormous salad! That plate that Darcy's holding is one of two identical platters! (That's Taylor on the right.)

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Spiced Pepitas (p. 314)

So easy, so quick, so good! You add a bunch of interesting flavors (cumin, allspice, cayenne, chili powder, salt and sugar) to egg whites, coat raw pumpkin seeds with it, then bake it for 10-15 minutes. Genius! Martha says you can do the same things with pecans, walnuts, cashews or almonds. Yum! This would be a great bar snack or pre-meal nosh, something that tastes really special and isn't hard to execute.

These worked great with the salad. And I couldn't help noticing that even after people had finished their salad, they kept noshing on the pepitas.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

How to Fillet a Flat Fish (p. 120)

Since Martha indicated that the Bouillabaisse stock should be made with the same fish that would be in the soup, I figured I'd do all the filleting myself, and I'd have all the fish heads and bones at my disposal.

I'd already taken the lesson How to Fillet a Round Fish, so that experience came in handy with the red snapper, the striped bass, and the branzino.

But I needed the flat fish lesson for the fluke (the fourth and final fish in the Bouillabaisse). The lesson was simple and effective. As a matter of fact, I think it was almost easier to fillet this flat fish than it was to fillet the round fish.

Or maybe it was just that this was the fourth one I filleted, so I was really in the swing of it.

Again, it's great/empowering to realize that I can accomplish tasks that I'd normally leave to a fishmonger.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Skinning a Fillet (p. 199)

This lesson is pretty much self-evident, but I was happy for the specific guidance. I think it went very well. :-)

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Bouillabaisse (p. 197)

For some reason, I've been dreading this dish. My only past experience of bouillabaisse was from a trip to the south of France with Tracy C. We were passing through Marseille, and every travel book insisted that we eat bouillabaisse there. Now Tracy is sauce-o-phobic, and anything with a soupy consistency is just a hiding place for unknown terrors and is out of the question for her. Meanwhile, bouillabaisse is a two-person minimum dish, so we had to sweet talk the waiter into serving me a single portion, which as far as I can remember was delicious. (This was eleven years ago.)

Reading the recipe in the book left me feeling like the dish was going to chew me up and swallow me whole. But making it was so much less drama than I expected.

Let me break it down for you:

You make a stock.
You toast some bread for croutons.
You make a spread (rouille) for said bread.
You bring stock to a boil, add saffron, potatoes, and fish until cooked through, and then serve.

No big whoop, right?

Here's the curious thing: the stock has many ingredients - fish heads and bones, pernod (an anise-flavored apéritif), leeks, celery, fennel, orange peel, canned tomatoes, wine, and a bay leaf, which you would think would make for a really complex, layered taste experience. In fact, it tasted like a very simple fish stock. All those interesting flavors... where did they go?

Making the rouille was a little stressful for me. I did it in the blender - Martha suggests using a food processor or a blender, but the last time I tried to emulsify mayo in the food processor, it was a failure, so I tried the blender this time. And it failed again!

It's tricky because when you try to do this kind of task in either machine, the base ingredients get stuck under the blade, and the oil doesn't get mixed in because the blades are just spinning on top of the garlic and yolk, etc. And you more oil to try to incorporate everything, and then you've added too much, and it never comes together.

So I threw it all out and started over, doing it by hand. I used a mortar and pestle to make the garlic paste, whisked in the soaked bread crumbs and yolk, and then emulsified by hand, and it worked perfectly. Give it up for old school! Incidentally, the rouille tastes amazing, SO garlicky. Martha says '3-5 garlic cloves, depending on taste preference," but I'm telling you, three is PLENTY!

As you read above, I filleted all the fish myself, and since I had to use four different kinds of fish, they were smallish. Accordingly, the fillets were smallish and thinnish and somewhat fragile and fell apart in the process of cooking and serving. This wasn't a problem, per se, but it didn't make for a particularly attractive soup. Speaking of the aesthetics of bouillabaisse, it's a somewhat monochromatic dish. Everything is in the white to amber family.

I like the addition of the fingerling potatoes, lending a slight sweetness and heft to the mix.

The croutons with the rouille were definitely the highlight of this course - crunchy and peppery and garlicky. I think we all took Martha's suggestion to mix some rouille into the broth itself, which amped up the flavor a bit.

In the end, this course left me cold. Much ado..., if you know what I mean. I love the idea of recreating a centuries-old traditional dish, but this is probably where bouillabaisse and I part ways....

FYI, that's Michael on the left and Terry on the right.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Flan (p. 473)

Here's yet another dessert that would never make my menu, were it not for the fact that I'm cooking everything in this book. I've never been one for custard, and this is custard times a thousand.

The interesting and challenging part of making flan is the caramel. You mix sugar and water together (and lemon juice, if you opt for it, which I did) and cook it until it becomes amber. There's a whole thing about brushing down the sides of the saucepan with water so crystals don't form. I'm not sure what would happen if they did form... maybe they would burn and give the caramel a charry flavor.

Next, you stick it in an ice bath for 3 seconds to stop the cooking and then pour it into the bottom of whatever serving dish(es) you're using, either ramekins or an 8 inch round cake pan. (I opted for the cake pan.) You have a tiny window in which to do this, because that caramel will harden in five seconds. In fact, it seemed like half of the caramel was left behind, hardened in the saucepan. I worried that there wouldn't be enough in the flan.

Then you make the custard, in this case with milk, sugar, whole eggs and egg yolks, and vanilla extract. (Conversely, the Crème Brûlée is made with heavy cream, yolks only, and a vanilla bean.) Pour the custard over the caramel, bake in a water bath, let cool, then cover and refrigerate.

FYI, there was so much custard that the cake pan was filled to the brim, and when I put it in the oven, there was some spillage into the water bath. Not an issue, but worth mentioning. Maybe a 9 inch cake pan would have been better....

When you're ready to serve the flan, you run a knife around the pan and invert it onto a serving dish, so the caramel layer is on top. I was not prepared for the buckets of caramel juice that went pouring all over the counter, the floor, and my shoes. (Thanks again, Darcy, for wiping it all up!) How could I have thought there wouldn't be enough caramel??

It's an attractive dish and a pleasant enough taste, but it's just not my thing. Darcy liked it because she thought it tasted light and not too sweet, and I agree that compared to the Crème Brûlée, it is definitely eons lighter and less sweet. I think that I may have overcooked the caramel, as there was a slight burnt taste to the syrup. Or perhaps it was the optional lemon juice, lending a bit of bitterness. If I were going to do this again (which I highly doubt I will), I would do it without the lemon juice.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Until we eat again....


  1. Nice fall menu! Im sure you're the most popular neighbor in your building. Ive never tried to filet whole fish before but you make it sound pretty easy so its def something Im intrested to try.

    Super happy you tried the flan. Looks like you did a beautiful job... i love FLAN!

    Have a great time on your trip. ~ Dawn :)

  2. Thanks, Dawn! I have to have you guys over before our class ends!