Pro Series Class 3: Seafood

This post is part of a 9-part series related to my completion of the Pro Series 1 professional culinary arts course at The Culinary Center of Kansas City with Chef Richard McPeake. This course changed my cooking world! An introductory post can be found here.

I do like seafood but I was a little nervous for this class. Mostly because I knew it would involve shellfish — not the yummy lobster, crab, shrimp kind, but the slimy-in-the-shell-kind. Mussels. Clams. Oysters. Ick. On the drive, I debated whether to fake a shellfish allergy that would prevent me from trying what we cooked. Maybe even a kidney problem that restricted me from eating raw foods.

I learned so much in this class. Regular, seemingly decent fish nights at our house were proven to be total freshness disasters. First up was a discussion of how to judge fresh seafood. The most important information Chef Richard shared here wasn’t exactly news. We live in the Midwest. Far from the coast. In general, the fish (other than unfortunate lake trout if you’re so inclined) is not “fresh”. Where we’re located, fish is at a minimum 6 days old. The exception is restaurants that may have fresher fish flown in.

Three tools to judge freshness are odor, feel, and taste. Odor is easy — fish shouldn’t smell fishy when raw, and shouldn’t smell gross when cooked. If it does, it isn’t fresh. Feel is a little more complicated — fish should be firm and not squishy, and should “spring back” when touched. But how often does a person have the option to squeeze fish in the grocery store? So unless the fish is sold in trays with plastic wrap, you’re out of luck. Taste you won’t know till you get the little guys home — again, fresh fish shouldn’t have a strong fish taste. Good fish is sweet and mild. A few more tips on picking fresh fish are in key learning section below.

Next up was seafood storage and preparation, where I realized I am doing it all wrong. I usually purchase “fresh” fish from my grocery counter and either prepare it when I get home (or within a day or two) or freeze it. When I want to use the frozen fish, I put it in the fridge to thaw overnight. The problem with my method is that fish needs to be frozen when it is fresh, and cooked immediately upon thawing. Freezing fish won’t hurt it, but the fish deteriorates while waiting to be frozen, and also after it thaws. So here’s what I should be doing — A) buy actual fresh fish and cook it that day (more on that below), OR B) buying IQF (individually quick frozen) fish, which is frozen in individual portions within hours of the catch. I think that I’ll be stocking up on Schwan’s frozen salmon and tilapia (www.schwans.com) to make things simple. Next thing I should be doing is A) thawing my fish in a drain-style pan under refrigeration, OR B) thawing under continuously running cold water.

We discussed different cuts of fish and how fish are dressed (hopefully in color-blocking which is SO IN right now!), and also the different kinds of seafood and their most complimentary cooking methods. We learned how to choose and clean mussels, and to shuck oysters, as well as heard a convincing story about how not to shuck oysters. I won’t spend alot of time on shellfish, but if I know the answers, I’ll respond to questions. Shoot, I’ll probably respond either way.

And then it was cooking time. We had 90 minutes to prepare 4 seafood dishes. With Meat Week under our belts, we worked more efficiently and even had more time to stop and enjoy our food. I even worked in a nice little cup of coffee which kept me up most of the night. And if you’re wondering, I tried each dish and lived to tell the story.

Steamed Mussels with White Wine Clam Broth
Prettiness Score: 100%
Taster Review: Quite tasty. Mildly weird.

Steamed Mussels with White Wine Clam Broth

Oysters Rockefeller
Ickiness Rating: Low — these babies are cooked!
Taster Review: That was really good but I’m not sure I want another.

Oysters Rockefeller

Seared Salmon Medallions with Avocado Buerre Blanc
Prettiness Score: 90% This was one beautiful sauce and our salmon were seared perfectly.
Secret Thought: Should I scrape the pan into my purse?
Difficulty: The salmon prep was simple, but the sauce (a butter sauce) was SO difficult. Ours failed initially but Chef was able to save it and help us make it fantastic. All four teams failed — but he did say ours was the only one that turned out perfect!

Seared Salmon with Avocado Buerre Blanc

Buttered Crumb-Topped Scrod
Awkward Name Rating: Moderate to Highly Awkward
Taster Review: Good, but nothing was as good as the Salmon.
Serving Suggestion: Cover in Avocado Buerre Blanc

Buttered Crumb-Topped Scrod

Top Tips:

*Get to know your fish purveyor and make sure they know their stuff. Learn how they handle your seafood and where it comes from. If you get bad fish or they don’t know what they’re doing, break up with them, burn the pictures, and never look back.

*Just because fish is displayed in cases on ice, doesn’t mean it wasn’t previously frozen. Instead of trusting them when they tell you whether it was, learn where and how the fish is caught so you can figure it out yourself. For example, orange roughie are fished on 6-month cruises, so the fish are frozen on board. So orange roughie should always be sold as “previously frozen”. Shrimp is another good example as in this area, almost all shrimp have been previously frozen.

*You can identify signs of deterioration just looking at the fish. On a filet, because the tail and stomach are thinner pieces, they will show signs first. Watch for dullness and discoloration (yellow, brown, green). Also watch for purveyors that turn these pieces underneath the rest of the fish to hide signs of aging. Dullness occurs around 8 days and discoloration occurs around 14 days…so fish that look like this are likely of “advanced age”.

*Cut salmon on the bias to grill or sear. It will cook faster and more evenly, and look prettier. Cut straight to bake. Serve salmon with the dark side down because no one wants to look at that.

*The best way to freeze your own salmon is to freeze a sheet tray, cut salmon portions, dip salmon in 32 degree ice bath, freeze salmon on tray, then saran and zipper bag individual portions.

Tomorrow night is veggie night. As in creamed spinach, ratatouille, and glazed carrots. Not brussel sprouts and garden peas, Mom!

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