Monday, March 05, 2007

Fish with Crispy Skin, plus more Gabietou and Fontina Val d'Aosta

Ever since we went to bushi-tei, the elegant little Michelin-starred joint around the corner from us, I've been thinking about fish with crispy skin. They served us a piece of white fish that had the most spectacular, perfectly crusted skin -- it was utterly unlike anything I'd had before. But surely, we thought, there must be a way to do this on our humble stove.

So this weekend, we netflixed Babette's Feast and decided to work on our skin-crisping skills. You can find instructions easily on the net, but here's what we did.

Fish with Crispy Skin

First, the fish.

I'm not so good in front of the meat counter of the fish counter. Put me before the cheese counter and look out, but I often feel that I know nothing about the ways of other critters. Unfortunately, my Omnivore was thoroughly distracted by the task of selecting wines for us to play with and I soon realized that I was on my own at the fish counter. I knew we were looking for white fish with a not-too-thick skin. Not trout, and not catfish, I read, but rather a saltwater fish. Confronted with the many lovely fillets, however, I was chagrined to discover that most of the fishy candidates had been skinned. I had two choices, mahi-mahi and halibut. So halibut it was.

We've had halibut before. Ms. Food Snoot's brother snagged a six-foot halibut off the coast of Alaska and sent her several frozen tons of fish. This is the same guy who once shot a moose and then had to drag it back to his car while nursing a broken ankle. I must admit I hadn't thought much of the flavor of halibut-- I have had it since, and it always seems somewhat tough and characterless. But this, THIS is the way to make it.

I got a deboned, two-pound piece which I cut into smaller squares, because according to the instructions, smaller pieces work better, plus they're cuter.

After making sure the scales were all cleaned off, we dabbed off the pieces with paper towels, and then laid a bed of kosher salt down on a plate. The instructions advise gently scraping the edge of a knife across the skin, to scrape any more moisture away. We then pressed the fish, skin side down, onto the salt bed and left it there for an hour. We were advised to salt and pepper the tops while they rested in the bed, but to be honest, I'd wait to do that until just before cooking.

After an hour, the salt will have drawn out a lot more moisture, so lift it off the salt bed, scrape off the salt from the skin, and paper towel dry them again. Now season with salt and pepper.

In a skillet that holds heat well, like a cast iron pan, heat a thin layer of high smoke point oil such as safflower or grapeseed or peanut oil over a medium heat. I like peanut oil because it imparts a lovely flavor. Try not to use too much oil.

Lay each piece of fish, skin side down in the pan and then place a plate or some other object over the fillets to help weigh them down for one minute. After a minute, remove the weight and let the fish cook about two more minutes.

Carefully flip them over, trying not to tear the skin, and then turn off the heat, allowing the residual heat to finish the fish for about 30 to 60 seconds.

Serve! Now!!

The fish was so yummy we both went back for more. The final result was a a shade too salty, but probably because I overseasoned initially and then couldn't do anything about it later. Overall, though, this has become the preferred method for dealing with white fish.

It was an experimental sort of night, so I bought some of those enticing little rainbow carrots at Golden Produce, and sauteed them briefly with green beans -- a fairly nice match with the fish. We also roasted some golden beets, which are delicious, but didn't really match well with the fish. What they did go beautifully with was the rehydrated black cherries. Who knew? My next adventure may be a cherry compote and toasted macadamias to go over the sliced beets.

But what of the cheese? You may well ask. As it happened, I did venture over to the cheese counter, where I felt much more confident in demanding samples of the Fontina Val d'Aosta, a nutty cow's milk cheese that my Omnivore hadn't had before. We had some San Marcellin quietly oozing away in our fridge as well, but on trying a sample of the Gabietou, a mix of cow and sheep's milk cheese from the French Pyrenees, and affined here by Herve Mons, we realized that we needed a goodly chunk of that one to be really happy.

I had smuggled back some Gabietou before from London, but it wasn't a big deal because it's an aged cheese. nevertheless, it also a fabulous cheese that took on a pretty pungent creaminess as it warmed up. Eric liked it so much that we had to strike a deal, in which he got most of the Gabietou, while I got most of the San Marcellin.

I ask you, who really won in that scenario?

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