Trouble bass

Chef’s sea bass with crispy skin. Salt-crust turnip, endive, pickled cauliflower and a mint yogurt sphere

Chef’s sea bass with crispy skin. Salt-crust turnip, endive, pickled cauliflower and a mint yogurt sphere

The dish du jour was Filet de Bar a l’Unilateral, Navet en Croûte de Sel, Choux Fleur en Pickle avec Yaourt Mentholé. Crisp sea bass with salt-crust turnip, endive, pickled cauliflower and a mint yogurt sphere. Actually, I think this might be the first crispy fish skin we’ve done. Blimey! This is actually an exam dish. If I’d have started at Le Cordon Bleu in the Autumn it would’ve been my exam dish rather than the stuffed saddle of rabbit.

This was fun because I got to make a salt crust and try out spherification.

Time for science. Woot!

Alginate powder was mixed with maltodextrin. Alginate is a molecule found in seaweed. It’s a gum because it has the ability to thicken or gel water. Unlike gelatine or starch, alginate gels a water-based liquid only in the presence of ions such as calcium. The alginate had to be evenly dispersed in cold water with no lumps, and hydrated so that each molecule was surrounded by water. This was done by whizzing water with a hand blender while adding the powders. Inevitably I got lumps. Not a good start. In the demo chef said we had to use distilled water so there wasn't too much calcium in the mix. When I went to collect my distilled water there wasn’t enough. We had a different chef in the practical. He brushed it off and said, “use tap water”. Hmmm. I was sceptical about my mix at this point. Anyway, once I finally vanquished the damn lumps the gel went in the fridge to rest.

Fish prep done. Skin scored parallel to the end of the fillet. Tip—gently pinch the top and bottom of the fillet to push the middle meat up into a ridge, then score the ridge with a knife.

The salt crust was made with flour, salt, egg white and a spice mix called Vadouvan. It was a particularly sticky job caking the turnip. In the oven with you. The crust should have a good brown colour by the time it comes out of the oven. And bear in mind, once it’s out of the oven, whatever’s inside will continue cooking and absorbing salt as long as it’s in the crust. That usually means breaking it out pretty quickly. Salt crust sets like concrete and it’s hot. Like really, really hot, which means freeing the vegetable to a serenade of “oohs” and “ahhs”, and the occasional “hot hot hot”.

The smallest cauliflower florets were dropped into a pickling liquor with Vadouvan.

Yogurt was stirred with double cream, a very fine chiffonade of mint leaves, and just a little sugar, salt and pepper. This was reserved for spherification fun later.

There was quite a lot going on in this dish vegetable-wise. Seems strange for a French dish. The white end of a leek was cut into 2cm rings. One end was blackened in a cast iron pan with smoking oil before clarified butter was added to confit the blighters. Trompette mushrooms which had been hydrating in water were drained, dried and shredded before being crisped up in beurre noisette. Endive leaves were gently cooked and rolled in butter and sugar until they took on a bit of colour. Chef said mine looked unevenly cooked. Boo. The turnip was quartered and then turned, which basically required a bevel around the curved edges. The quarters were glazed in honey and lemon juice reduced to a syrup. Chef said my turnips needed more glazing. Oo-err matron!

The sea bass fillets were cooked skin-side down on a cartouche—a piece of baking sheet in the pan to stop the skin sticking. This technique annoyed the chef giving the demonstration because a cartouche would never be used in restaurant kitchens. There’s no time. Imagine the order coming in and you reply, “hold on a second chef, I just have to make a cartouche.” Sea bass is one of those fish that curls when it hits the heat so it’s important to apply a bit of pressure to keep it flat. This was only necessary for 10 seconds or so. When you want crispy skin, leave the fish alone. No poking, pushing or checking underneath. If it sticks, don’t panic. It should. When it’s crispy it should release itself. What’s key is not to have the pan so hot that the skin burns before crisping and unsticking itself.

The fish was cooked on one side only. The flesh side was basted a couple of times with melted butter, the fillets quickly turned over, doused with a squeeze of lemon juice and removed from the pan. Turns out I basted a bit too much. Though I had lovely crispy skin I had overcooked the fillets. Bugger it.

The final act was spherification. This is where it all went hilariously wrong. It was like one of those Generation Game activities involving food with Larry Grayson. You just know it’s going to get messy. My spherification was an absolute flop. My quenelle of yogurt was slop—quite literally. Chef said the quenelle only needs to be suspended in the gel for a couple of minutes. The longer it’s submerged, the more it sets. 2 minutes, my arse! My second quenelle had 5 minutes. Better but no cigar. My last quenelle had 8 minutes and I really had to serve. Nope. Fail. Trying to get a spoonful of gloop perched atop my beautiful leek confit, well….sigh.

Was something wrong with my gel because I had lumps and used tap water? Dunno. Afterwards, the chef in the practical said to rocher the yogurt rather than quenelle it. I was wondering at the time, looking at my yogurt, whether the spoon-over-spoon action to quenelle was warming up the yogurt. Anyway, some Christmases ago Roberta bought me a spherification kit. Time to try it at home.

Best part of the dish? The trompettes, without a doubt. Like that crispy seaweed you get from the Chinese takeaway but mushroomy. Lovely.

Not my best day in the kitchen. And I forgot to take a photo of my plate.