When I first took a class in watercolour painting, I quickly learned that I lacked basic drawing skills. While I could apply convincing and pleasing washes and blends, it was hard to produce credible landscapes without some ability to draw a tree or a mountain. I needed a good skills class.
Similarly, a recipe can carry me some distance, but I’m limited if I lack basic kitchen skills. My w.wezen gave me a course-of-my-choice at Ann’s Smart School of Cookery in London, and I decided to use it to bone up on the basics.
A very British term, it implies the skills needed to reduce a whole fish to a pair of filets, nicely cooked and presented. Knife work for boning and skinning, skillet tips for crispy skin and smoking, were the core skills.
Ann’s London base is out on Canary Wharf, out along the DLR about as far as you can get from Paddington Station. The Star Wars Celebration (Europe) convention was being held nearby, so I was treated to lots of Storm Troopers and X-Wing Pilots, Leias and Reys filling the coaches.
Ann’s School is in the lower level of the West India Quay (Key), best found by keying off the nearby cinema and gym. It’s a nice working space with lots of nearby restaurants along the water: arriving 30 minutes early, I took in a light veggie-English breakfast and the early joggers beneath the symbolic cranes.
Once installed around the Ann’s kitchen, we were tasked with learning three skills, filleting, skinning, and braising. The chef-instructor quickly dispatched the first fish, slicing off the flank with a 7-inch knife before lifting off the ribs and trimming the fat. We sized up our trouts in pairs and slashed in. I failed to cut deep enough as the second man in our relay, and my filet was sadly pulpy and nicked.
Fortunately, we were headed towards Pâté, so it was all mashed in mascarpone and seasoned anyway.
My skinning skills were much better: a bit of pressure on an absolutely horizontal knife yielded a lovely fillet and a satisfyingly clean skin.
I was surprised to find that smoking was stovetop-accessible. A layer of foil, rice and tea, parchment, herbs, filets and ten minutes gave a delicately cooked flesh with almost no effort. We all plunged into trying to enhance the dish with spices: our lemon-garlic (with a hint of 5-spice) gave a delicate flavour against the smoke, while others went mad with chilies and peppers. Ah, the excess of youth.
On to Sea Bass (and Pin Bones), Flat Fish (and ‘Y’ cuts), both with butter and caper braising. The chefs approach crispy skin different than I have. I follow the ‘Absolutely dry applied to absolutely hot’ rule. They prefer oils, butter, and ‘never turn the fish’. It produced a very nice result with far less smell, smoke, and drama than mine.
There was a lot that I could use from the course, from choice of oils to angles of the knives. I am, sadly, of the ‘third time’s a charm’ school of learning. As with fondants and poached eggs, so shall it be with filleting and braising seafood.
Fortunately, trout are cheap and cooking only takes 20 minutes: easy to get lots of practice in a week of dinners.