The Secret To Perfectly Cooked Fish – For The Home Cook

Last weekend, I was making dinner with my girlfriend, using the ingredients she had on-hand at her place.  I found myself (as many home cooks tend to) without ingredients that I feel to be staples, and without which I was challenged to make the most basic of dishes to a level that I felt acceptable to cook for anyone (myself included).  This is a tutorial on substitutions, making a simple butter sauce (or “beur blanc” as it’s classically called), and how to cook perfect salmon – or salmon-like fish.

Ignoring the other elements that made the meal is a necessity here for the sake of brevity, but suffice it to say our meal did not solely consist of salmon and sauce – but I don’t need to be the thousandth professional cook to write something on how to properly cook rice and blanch green vegetables.

Before I begin to tell you how to perfectly cook salmon, and subsequently before you wonder why you should listen to me, I once ate at a restaurant called Oceanique in Evanston, IL.  At the time, I fancied myself a cook who excelled at fish preparation and cookery, but when I sampled the salmon I had that evening, not only did I feel I had just eaten the most perfectly-cooked piece of fish I’d ever had, but I had no idea how it was done.  Fast-forward a year and I was the sous chef at that very restaurant, and between the delivery door and the plate, I was the only person who touched fish at this fine dining French seafood restaurant.  So yes: I do consider myself an expert (oh, and it’s worth noting my chef’s mentor was a chef named Jean Banchet.  If that last sentence didn’t do anything for you, google him).

The first secret of perfectly-cooked fish is flavorful fat (olive oil is the most readily available and accepted form of this, but duck/bacon fat is a welcomed deviant).

After you’ve dried your fish (as in, with a paper towel – yes, it’s okay to apply direct drying to your proteins.  And they should be cooked at room temperature, while we’re on the subject), and moderately seasoned it on both sides with salt and black pepper, lightly coat an oven-safe cooking surface (sheet pan, tin foil, etc.) with olive oil.  Likewise, generously coat your fish with olive oil.  This doesn’t need to be the highest quality Spanish olive oil (yes, Spanish olive oil is the best), but just something not bitter that can be distinguished from canola oil. Then, coat parchment paper (or deli paper) with olive oil and cover the fish, making sure the entirety of the surface of the fish is in contact with the paper (you’re creating a seal).  Then just throw that little parcel of joy into an oven you’ve pre-heated to 300 degrees F (electric or gas – it doesn’t matter, as long as it’s calibrated – with no fan/no convection) for ten minutes for the average salmon fillet (if you paid a few sheckels less for a tail piece, then you’d better set that timer for eight min.).  When the timer goes off, remove the paper, apply another basting of oil/fat, and finish with a little twist of finishing salt (any type of sea salt suffices).

To many people, it will seem severely undercooked.  I understand.  Take a bite.  A smile will grace your face as you repeat those words right back to me with my own smile gracing mine.  People enjoying beautiful food just makes me react that way.

Onto making the sauce!

This is where the improvisation came into play.  To make a garden variety butter sauce, you sweat shallots in butter (or another, inferior cooking agent), then add white wine.  ‘How much?’ you may ask.  Well, just shy of a centimeter above the contents of the saucepan (which, by the way, is technical terminology for “small pot”.  There will soon be a post about an early cooking experience where a cohort of mine took “sauce pan” for “a sauté pan that I’m going to make a sauce in.”  Oh the jokes that were had at his expense thereafter!) should be about right.  Reduce it down (that means let it bubble away until it evaporates) until there’s a couple millimeters of liquid left in the saucepan, then add a splash of heavy cream (cream, heavy cream, and whipping cream are all the same thing – it’s worth noting).  Taking a page out of the French cook books, you can replace heavy cream with crème fraiche… and anticipating the reaction of every American ever, who doesn’t have crème fraiche just laying around: crème fraiche is just fancy sour cream.  So… if you don’t have heavy cream or crème fraiche… throw in a little dollop of sour cream (I did, and it turned out fine!).  Oh, and also, don’t ever try to replace cream with milk or half and half.  Fist of all, if you’re trying to be healthy, use pesto.  Second of all, they don’t work the same.  Let it reduce a little more, until the bubbles start to look… a little impatient.

At that point, kill (turn off) the heat, and start gradually whisking in whole butter (if the butter has been cut into uniform cubes/prisms prior to this stage, it will only benefit your process).  It’s at this point that adding the extra dairy earlier comes into play.  Adding extra cream to a butter sauce is not classic procedure, but it doesn’t hurt, and it does help the sauce maintain its stability (meaning it’s less-likely for the sauce to “break”, when adding butter).   I can’t explain this on a chemical level, but in my experience, it just kinda does.

Keep whisking in butter  until the sauce achieves a silky but rich, consistency.  The sauce should end up being about 80% butter in volume.  Season appropriately with salt, then strain through a chinoise, or if you don’t mind the shallots, just spoon it over whatever it’s been betrothed to.

In my situation, I was immediately foiled:  there were no shallots – or onions of any kind! But there was garlic.  It wouldn’t provide the same flavor stability that shallots would, but it’s distinct flavor would distract from that absence, so unless you’re cooking for Alton Brown, you would be in the clear with this minor sub.  If you have neither garlic, nor shallots… stop reading this.

There are some bases you need to cover before you try to tackle any kind of perfect cooking of a French butter sauce.  Steps 1 & 2 are: 1) buy shallots, 2) buy butter, 3) have garlic on-hand. Just, because.

At this point, you can assess the effort you’d like to dedicate to this endeavor: If you’re planning on straining the sauce for it to be smooth and perfect, crush garlic cloves and rough chop shallots.  If you’re not going to strain, but still want it to seem smooth, then see the thing I wrote about the pinnacle of knife cuts: brunoise.  But if you’re okay with a more rustic style of sauce with noticeable pieces of things in the sauce (think of it as a refined country gravy!) then just cut everything as small as you feel comfortable (if you aren’t hosting anyone too pretentious, they won’t notice anyway 😉).

If you find yourself in the situation of not even owning a chinoise  (oh no!!!), just strip your thyme off the stem, grind your pepper fresh and finely, and add both at the end of the process.

Good quick last minute tips to spruce up a beur blanc: a squeeze of citrus juice or a pinch of zest really livens up a beur blanc, keeping in mind that zest should only ever be the color of the exterior of the fruit in question – as soon as you start grating away the white rind, you’re making whatever it is bitter, and you should stop doing that 😊

Speaking of what you should stop doing… stirring!

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