Baker’s mullet

My free interpretation dish. Red mullet—sigh. Ok fine. Fish it is.

BTW, coming up with a dish isn’t easy, even with the Interwebs. Googling “red mullet ideas” gives you as many dodgy hairstyles as it does fish recipes.

There are rules:

  1. I must use a minimum of 18 ingredients from a list of 27. The ingredients are seasonal and scream Mediterranean to me.

  2. I must showcase the red mullet fillet so my fish filleting technique can be assessed. I can use the trimmings however I want.

  3. There must be a sauce.

  4. There must be vegetable garniture.

  5. And there must be a dough element on the plate.

Chefs want to see a good use of ingredients. That means flavours that work together, contrasting textures, food preparation that demonstrates various cooking methods learned at Le Cordon Bleu, and an appetising presentation.

Iteration one.

I’m rolling with Mediterranean and decided to let the ingredients do their own talking as much as possible. In my head that means keeping it super simple. On the plate I want it to be bright and colourful and fresh looking. I’m looking for a recipe that I can consistently serve within 90 minutes.

First impressions, chef said my plate was colourful. Tick. Based on the ingredients I’d used, he remarked that I had many flavours going on but that they should work together. He didn’t say that I should reduce the flavours. So I won’t. I wonder if that will come back to bite me next time around.

Deep down everyone still wants to do crispy fish skin even though chefs have repeatedly warned us not to attempt it. I baked my fishy. It got brushed lightly with olive oil, seasoned with salt and a sprinkling of cayenne pepper, then into the oven between baking sheets with a trivet on top to stop is curling. Just before serving the skin gets a quick pass with a blow torch—more for flavour than look and feel. I’m happy with the result. Chef said the fish was correctly cooked and I should use a slightly bigger portion of fillet.

For the dough element I decided on Panelle, which is a Sicilian street food. It’s like polenta but made with chickpea flour. I later found out it exists in the south of France too—they call it Panisse. Over the heat, cold water was slowly whisked into seasoned chickpea flour to prevent lumps. The mixture thickened until a dough eventually came away from the sides. This took about 10 to 15 minutes whisking then beating all the way. Towards the end chopped coriander and cayenne pepper were added. The hot dough was fed into moulds and left to cool and set. Turned out the dough bars were cut to size and the top and bottom pan-fried in olive oil to serve.

Panisse is a dense dough. The trick is to achieve a creamy (albeit dense) centre with an even golden and crispy skin. Chef advised me to put half as much Panisse on the plate. Frying it in the medium frying pan was a mistake. The base is curved and I didn’t quite get an even colour and crisp. I should’ve used one of the cast iron pans. If I’m to stick with Panisse I’m thinking about deep frying it to get a crispier finish. What concerns me though is spending 10 to 15 minutes at a pan during the exam. Multitasking won’t be impossible but it’s risky. The alternative I’m considering is called Socca, which is similar but baked in the oven and served as a flat bread.

I made great pickled fennel. Just delicious and so crispy. Chef liked it. Even Roberta liked it and she’s not a fan of aniseed.

I also compressed tomato buttons in a syrup. My thinking was the dish could afford a small surprise of sweetness.

However, Chef said I could drop the syrup because the pickled fennel was both sweet and sour. I gladly nodded agreement having been confused twice between the identical pans, one containing the syrup and the other containing the pickle. That’s agro I can do without on exam day.

The sauce has been the challenge. I’d planned to create a fumet but chef casually mentioned some a few days ago not to bother. There’s not much flavour to be had from red mullet bones apparently. Fine by me. I’ll build flavours another way. Fennel, ginger, garlic, the single shallot I’m permitted and a pinch of saffron were sweated down in butter. Then 4 thin slices of lemon were added. The sweat continued. This was all done with the lid on. Once the juice from the lemon slices had evaporated I added white wine and let it reduce by half. Off the heat I added a table spoon of crème fraiche and left it to infuse with the lid on. The lot was passed and squeezed to yield a vibrant yellow sauce. FTW.

To me it’s a curious flavour but it does work with the fish. It’s a little acidic and also creamy. Chef said overall there’s too much acidity on the plate given the sauce and the pickle together. He advised I reduce the acidity in the sauce. Fair enough. But given my under-developed palate I can’t quite decide which levers to pull. I mean all the ingredients carry some acidity. Maybe I’ll start by reducing the white wine and then the lemon slices. I don’t want to lose the lemony flavour. Some experiments are necessary. At least I didn’t get told I’d overdone the saffron. That was a real fear. I love the colour saffron creates but its metallic taste isn’t nice.

I had a few simple things going on with vegetables. Shaved asparagus and spring onion were cooked in water and butter. Asparagus trimmings were used to bulk up a basil and olive salsa verde, which I managed to hide under my veg for no logical reason. My spring onion was undercooked. That can go. It adds nothing to the plate. Umami came from my red pepper fondue. Blackened red bell peppers with tomato, garlic, spring onion and coriander slow cooked under a cartouche.

I put cockles on the plate. And like most people in the class I did not remove the sack of sand. Well nobody told me! I still feel like the cockles are pointless. All I’m doing is steaming them in white wine and putting them up as a garnish. Does my ingredient count allow me to drop them? Chefs say we can use the liquor to boost the sauce. To me it stinks of rock pool. At the end of the day I want to put up a dish that I can eat so cockle liquor—no thanks.

I’m happy with the presentation of the sauce and the fish, but nothing else. The right hand side of the plate is cluttered. With slightly less garniture and better use of white space I’d like to come with something that looks elegant. Time to play.

On the whole the outcome is positive. My use of ingredients works. Refinement is necessary and I need to be careful not to change things so fundamentally that I find myself with something that doesn’t work.