The Desert Sun
July 5, 2006 by Henry Fenwick

Lured in by cooking class on making fish

When Chef Tony Thomas suggested I join one of his cooking classes, I was intrigued; when I saw that he had a class on cooking fish, I was - appropriately enough - hooked. If I had to I could face the prospect of giving up meat with a fair degree of composure; the prospect of giving up fish would plunge me into despair. To me it is just about the perfect protein. It cooks quickly, which is a huge advantage in the summer, and depending on what kind of fish you choose it lends itself to almost infinite variation.

Chef Tony gives classes every week (his July and August schedule includes one on giving a dinner party, another on desserts, another on sauces) and his class is limited to eight people, so it was hardly surprising that there were some veteran class members present at the fish class. There were information packets for everyone, including a list of dishes that we were going to prepare. It was an ambitious selection; when I saw that it included the butter poached lobster created by Chef Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin, a recipe that had won an award from Bon Appetit as the best dish of the year, I knew that I was in brave company. The other items on the list were a seared Ahi tuna, a roasted sea bass, a tilapia piccate, and a Southwestern swordfish. It looked like a full afternoon.

The class was divided into couples, and each couple was assigned a dish to work on. I have to confess that I felt an enormous relief when the most veteran students were assigned the lobster; that looked like the most daunting task of all. I was going to be working with the swordfish, which was to be prepared en papillote - in an envelope of parchment paper. We would all be able to follow the preparation of each dish, and taste them as they were completed - in whatever order that turned out to be.

As it happened, it turned out first to be the tuna. It was a seared sesame crusted Ahi tuna with a wasabi mayonnaise and as we all ate portions, the chef commented. There were two main points that emerged in the post mortem: first, the chef said, he thought that the fish was perfectly cooked but he pointed out that some people preferred the fish less cooked. I have to confess that I am one of those people - it's a point that always comes up when I'm cooking fish at home. I like tuna and salmon with a hint of rawness still at the center, my wife doesn't. I serve myself then cook the fish a little longer for her.

Secondly, Chef Tony felt that the wasabi mayonnaise wasn't as potent as it might have been. It's better, he told the cooks, to use warm water when making a wasabi paste and the wasabi paste should be left to sit before using, to let the flavor develop. That was worth noting, because the combination was a good one, and could have been dynamite.

The roasted sea bass with a "fiery citrus salsa" was next. The salsa was a mixture of orange and apple, with chile, garlic, lemon and mint; I could have eaten it for days even without the bass. Cooking fish en papillote, as we did with the swordfish, is a great technique; if you get the timing slightly wrong, it's easy to adjust. Any white flaky fish, Chef Tony pointed out, could be treated that way. Opinions differed on the tilapia, mainly because opinions diverged on tilapia itself. I rather like it; it's a bland fish that takes well to piquant flavors like lemon and capers. And it sautés well.

But the triumph was undoubtedly the lobster. I'd been intimidated, partly because I'd tasted it when the creator, Eric Ripert, visited Azur and presented it in celebration of his Bon Appetit award. Those cooking class veterans might not have been in the same league as Ripert but they did a splendid job and proved that a great recipe can be well served by keen amateurs.

I talked later to Chef Kelly Walling, the chef at Pacifica Seafood Restaurant in Palm Desert, about the pitfalls of fish preparation. Given that Pacifica sometimes serves as many as 500 plates a night, I thought he was a man who should have all the answers. The first question I raised with him was that of how well done fish should be. He chuckled when I raised the subject; it's one he's very familiar with. The two fish that provoke the question most, he told me, are salmon and tuna.

Some people, (like me), like their salmon to be flaking but still have a hint of red at the center, the flesh still clinging together then melting in the mouth. Others, he told me, faced with salmon in that state, "send it back and say it's raw." Some like their tuna really rare, others, when served a piece of tuna seared on one side but rare throughout, react as though they were being faced with sushi when they hadn't ordered it.

"It's a matter of educating our servers," he said, "and having them talk to the customers (about how well-done they like their fish)." If customers want their fish well cooked then the kitchen will oblige.

"Halibut," he reflected, "needs to be moist. If you do overcook it then it becomes extremely dry." Another question that arises from time to time is when one diner will ask why his or her portion looks different from someone else's, when the dish is the same. The answer lies in the fact that fish is wild and therefore not uniform.

"I have to cut a piece of fish up and one portion will be different from another." The most popular fish Pacifica serves, he said, is wild salmon, which he hopes to be adding to the menu as soon as the price makes it possible - it has been selling for $30 a pound recently, not a price that customers would like to see reflected on a menu.

"When halibut is in season I sell a lot," he told me; at the moment it is still available and on the menu, but it will be out of season soon. "And I'm not buying it frozen," he said firmly. Sea bass is a customer favorite too, and tuna is a personal preference. "But wild salmon is always good," he said. And with a little luck it should be on the menu soon. Meanwhile, try the halibut while you can.

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