Fish and Chocolate

In Cuisine this week we’re focusing on fish, and in Pastry we’re working with chocolate.

We start by filleting sea bass for a dish with a red wine Bourguignonne sauce typically reserved for meat dishes. Thanks to my practice filleting mackerel chez Susan Loomis, I carve out an almost perfect fillet; no need for fish-boning tweezers here. The remains (head, bones, tail) go into a big pot for stock. But first, Chef tells me I need to remove the fish’s eyes. I confirm, “Oui Chef, avec un couteau à éplucher?” With a paring knife? Chef stares at me and says “Non, avec tes mains.” No, with your hands. He tells me to squeeze the head until the eyes pop out.

He’s not smiling, but I can’t imagine he’s serious. We look at each other; he’s not leaving until I start squeezing. But when I do, nothing happens; this fish still has two eyes. Chef motions for me to push in the left eye so it will pop out the right. I push so hard, my index finger liquefies the cornea. Finally the right eye pops, bugging like a cartoon, the left quickly follows, and staring up at me from the palm of my hand are two glassy fish eyes.

We plate the fish with the Bourguignonne sauce, and a turnip that’s been baked inside a crusty salt dough. Our other fish dishes for the week include milk-poached skate with beurre blanc, leeks, and deep fried capers, salmon with crispy skin, braised endive, and orange glazed carrots, and a red mullet stuffed with sauce vierge, or virgin sauce (olive oil, lime juice, and chopped tomato).

Each dish must be aesthetically plated, but also served piping hot. Easier said than done. But at the end of the week, after four fish entrées, a cracked salt dough, and toppled orange-glazed carrots, I’m ready for Chef’s evaluation. C’est bon! It’s good! It’s good! I forgot to snip the ends off the mullet’s tail, but otherwise Chef is pleased with my fish dishes, and I have a newfound patience for restaurant entrées that come out of the kitchen lukewarm, but look like works of art.

Our chocolate lesson in Pastry is a welcome departure from fish guts and eyeballs. The trickiest part of working with chocolate is that it has to stay a certain temperature; otherwise it can be dull, show white blotches, or have a spongy texture. But perfectly tempered chocolate is shiny, firm to the touch, and breaks with a sharp snap.

It’s a bit nerve-racking to pour a full bowl of warm chocolate all over our table because it oozes dangerously close to the the edges; but my partner and I quickly scrape it back toward the center with a pallet knife. Then we spread the chocolate over the table again and scrape it back toward the middle, repeating a few times until we’ve lowered its temperature.

By now, most of us have at least one chocolate battle-scar smeared across our white jackets, and it’s only going to get worse as the week progresses. On the menu: milk chocolate medallions with chopped fruit and nuts, pineapple-passion-fruit truffles, pistachio nougat, and praline truffles.

Chocolate, pineapple, and passion fruit are a few of my favorite things, and I don’t have to wait for the dog to bite or the bee to sting, to enjoy them in harmony. After our chocolate is tempered and we have scraped the table clean, we emulsify the chocolate with cream and sugar to make a ganache, mix in pineapple concentrate and passion fruit liquor, and pipe the mixture into pre-made dark chocolate truffle shells.

I’m not sure if we’re cheating using these pre-made shells, but I also can’t figure out how we’d actually make them, so I’m content just learning the chocolatier’s trick of stuffing the shell. After the truffles are filled, they get a luxurious bath in more chocolate, a moment to cool, a second chocolate enrobing, then a light dusting of coconut. These truffles are ta-die-for and will make a fabulous dessert after I finish eating the fish.