January 2012


Continuation of earlier posts:

Part 1

Part 2

***

So, where were we? We had just finished the Pretzel/Crab, and we were moving on to the next course.

COURSE 3: STEELHEAD- roe/beet/kefir/chrysanthemum

I’ve gone through a tumultuous relationship with beets, and I don’t know where I turned the corner. In school, I prepped 30 gallons of borscht, peeling each beet, leaving me with blood-stained hands. After that, I swore off beets for a long while. After about ten years, though, I came back around. I don’t know what it was. Maybe it was how they laid them out at the market in rainbow colored stacks of edible excitement. Maybe I saw a recipe somewhere, and I just had to have them. I remember bringing a bunch home, roasting them, sauteeing the tops, and falling for them all over again.

A lot of people dismiss them as muddy, and I can see that. However, with the right additions of flavor and a cooking method that leaves them with a pleasing texture, they can be enjoyed in any number of ways. We enjoy the root on salads or roasted alongside squash and other vegetables, and the greens are always great quick seared in a pan with the most minimal of seasonings, quite similar to all the other variegated greens.

Back to the third course, though. I figured that the preparation would be more than the borscht I had made 15 years ago, with equal or greater depth of flavor. The course proved my hypothesis correct both in preparation and presentation.

Here’s a closeup of the dish. What the chef presented us with was a smoked steelhead roe atop pickled beet with dried beet leaves dusted with malt powder and a light yogurt/kefir sauce.

When we were out in Seattle, I became acquainted with the men who ran the Bacon Salt/Baconnaise empire, and they passed me off a bottle of a malt vinegar flavored salt. We’ve only used it for seasoning potatoes so far, but with this dish, the lightness and pucker of malt vinegar dissolved into the crisp nothingness of the beet leaves.

The smoked roe, local-ish from Michigan, was a great centerpiece to the dish. Bright orange eggs with a light smokiness and pop seasoned the accompanying beet, and although I’ve smoked many meats and fish in the past, I still don’t know how the smoked roe was achieved. That’s another nod to the chef for putting the quizzical nature of the origin of flavor in my mind to ponder. The kefir and light chrysanthemum balanced the boldness of smoke, steelhead, and pickled beet in a sea of competing flavor strengths. Overall, the dish was one of our favorites.

COURSE 4: BLACK URCHIN- lime/cocoa/cauliflower

I’ve had great experiences with urchin before. Similar to an oyster, if you get a fresh urchin, tasting the fresh roe is reminiscent of the ocean; It’s briny, smooth, and lives up to its billing as the nautical cousin to foie gras. Conversely, bad urchin can be horrible. It’s so delicate that if it is frozen, which it very well might be, and thawed, it loses its potency and takes on a terrible after taste and texture. Recently, I went to a sushi counter at Mitsuwa in the suburbs of Chicago, and in my sampler, found some pieces with urchin roe. As I brought the piece close to my mouth, I inhaled the smell that I dreaded. It wasn’t fresh. Surprisingly, I didn’t immediately turn up my nose, as I was to give it a good try. When I put it in my mouth, I realized I had made a mistake. The urchin was amoebic and texturally unsound, filling my senses with dread and coating my tongue with an old fishy toothpaste. My experience with urchin was not to be repeated unless it was forced.

***

So far, at the table at Crux, we were three for three. First Course- simple. Second Course- Inventive. Third Course- Rock solid. Please, oh, please don’t make me regret trying the urchin again.

From the other room came the plates. They set them down in front of us, one at a time. Since there were two or three people serving ten, we had a little bit of time to stare at our plates and make sense of what was going on.

Everything’s there. There was a floret of charred cauliflower, and resting on top of that, largely untouched, lounged a lobe from the urchin shells that were hanging out on the tabletop, smoldering with a bit of vanilla pod. To complement the urchin, we had a supreme of lime, a bit of zest, cacao nibs as a second sweet/bitter combination, and, in the foreground, a swatch of  savory sea urchin whipped cream.

It’s always interesting, as I eat something new, to think about how the combinations of flavors came to be. Coming from the Midwest, where fish is flavored with either tartar sauce or lemon, I’ve come to understand that the combination of citrus and seafood works together. However, in addition to the sharp flavor influence of citrus on seafood, the astringency of a bitter cacao nib can also serve a similar purpose.

As I ate, my mind searched for answers to this dish, how it came to be, how the flavors played off of one another, and how it all fit together. It went something like this:

“Okay. Sea Urchin. Briny, yes. Seafood? Definitely. Add citrus. Citrus is bitter. Cacao nibs are bitter. Ah, yes, but cacao nibs are also toasted. Toasted. What else can be toasted? Hey, look at that. The cauliflower. It’s charred, so those things go together, but cauliflower’s real flavor is fairly mild. Oh, look. There’s the urchin whipped cream. Wow. It’s also really light.”

And there we are back at the lobe of fresh urchin. It looked fresh. It didn’t look or feel like its cellular structure had collapsed. It tasted like a fresh West Coast Oyster, which is to say, exactly like the sea. The flavor was both dialed up and brought down in waves by the contrasting accoutrements of the plating. The flavors came in waves, which for a meal celebrating bodies of water was appropriate.

COURSE 5: OYSTER- apple/hay/mustard

This was our extra course for the evening. No pictures exist of it, because it is an oyster, and we had reached a point where we were not only talking about how great the food was, but other things that peppered our lives with meaning. We were all at least a few glasses of wine into the night, and there was much crosstalk happening at the table. I heard “Gulf Oyster”, “Pickled Apple”, and looked down at my plate. Nestled on a bed of grassy stalks, there was one oyster, which I believed to be lightly smoked, on the half shell. tucked underneath the muscle meat was a tiny spoonful of diced apple and a bit of mustard seed. I do love the oysters, so I sent it straight down the hatch without thinking to take a picture.

To my knowledge, I haven’t had a gulf oyster before. I’m so used to the West Coast varieties that I didn’t know what to look for as I ate it, and didn’t have time to adequately reflect on the flavors. My recollection was that 1) I ate it too fast, 2)The gulf oyster is mild and earthy, and 3) the apples and mustard made it the dish that felt like it could be placed on a Midwestern Meat and Potatoes menu without too much quarrel.

COURSE 6: WALLEYE- grapefruit/vanilla/potato/brulee

Remember the post I made a couple weeks ago about how to fillet a walleye? This is why you follow the rules of properly cleaning and gutting a fish. It’s so you can have a finished product like this:

“What we have here is a Sous vide fillet of walleye with a crisp skin, tiny potatoes, fennel dusted with sumac powder, grapefruit, and balsamic vinegar.”

Sous vide. What a relationship I have with you. Mostly, I don’t understand it, but I get the basic idea of it. Long, low and slow cooking of meats that don’t necessarily need to be further tenderized- that’s how it goes. It goes by the principles of aquariums, wherein you place a sealed object in a water bath and warm water is circulated around your sealed protein to gently bring it up to an acceptable service temperature. When it is ready, all that needs to be done, if anything, is cut open the bag, perhaps finish it off in a pan or with a blowtorch to add a bit of caramelization, and put it on a plate. What you’re left with is a piece of protein that is tender, moist, as it has reserved all its own juices from cooking in a closed receptacle, and flavorful.

The walleye was no exception. Once again, subscribing to the fact that fish goes well with citrus, grapefruit, the entirely underutilized citrus, was paired with it for flavor. The crispy skin was added for texture, the potatoes for a fish fry complement, and the tart, woodsy sumac sprinkle on the fennel added another dimension of simple seasoning to a dish that was not in need of much to make it as comfort food.

As we ate, the most common exclamation was that people couldn’t believe how well the grapefruit went with the walleye. The conversation bounced back to the lime from the urchin course, and tangentially to how well the fruit went with any fish or flavor. Personally, I’ve prepared it with fluke and miso, and in a strange turn based on what i had in the fridge, with avocado, bacon, and monkfish. Both turned out exceptional. The walleye was lovely, but the standout was the versatile grapefruit.

COURSE 7: SHORT RIB- seaweed/egg/roots

OR

MONKFISH- seaweed/egg/roots

For the only meat course of the evening, we were offered Short Ribs. One of the great things about Crux was how they were able to accommodate diners with discriminating palates not only on short notice, but by adapting menu items to suit flavors that were well-tested enough to stand up to different proteins. My menu said “Short Rib”. The lady’s menu said “Monkfish”. As they came out, it was apparent that the base of the dish was the same, but the simple prep of the meat was the only difference.

My dish was Short Ribs with Sea Beans, a pressed pear with pepper with a cured egg yolk on top, fennel fronds, and a carrot top pesto.

Sea Beans, going with the theme of the meal, gave the course a dose of salinity. They don’t have a particularly descriptive flavor on their own, but they can be served fresh or lightly steamed, and have the texture of fiddleheads or very young asparagus.

The pesto also utilized an underused edible: The carrot top. As with beet greens, a lot of times, carrot tops are discarded. However, being that they’re the part of the carrot that gets the sunlight, the greens themselves have a great grassy taste to them that complements a pesto quite well.

I wish more people would give chlorophyll a chance.

Alongside the braised short rib, there was a pear. I understand just how hard it is to find an excellent pear, and this was a pretty good one. There was a little bit of black pepper on it, and a lightly cured egg yolk, done just long enough so that it was a bit salty, but still runny. Overall, it was a fancy steak and egg plate with a lot of added dimension. If anyone thinks that steak and eggs is primarily for greasy spoons, there is much to be learned about how to utilize your steak and/or eggs.

Here’s the monkfish version of the dish. Two diners got this one, a double tail of monkfish roasted on the bone. I loved the short rib, but once again, another great mark of a restaurant is if they make you want to try everyone else’s food. Since my lady couldn’t try the short ribs, I was content to leave her to the full enjoyment of her monkfish.

COURSE 8: CARROT- broken

I didn’t know what this was going to be. It’s a carrot. And the description? It’s broken. Interesting and curious.

It was a sorbet. The palate cleanser of the meal before the final course. It was served, mine in a tiny dish the size of a coaster, and hers in a giant bowl. I dig the individuality of the vessels as we enjoy our meals. It adds a uniqueness to each person’s experience. Even though we are all receiving the same courses, how we see them plated in front of us is what really makes it special.

We were given a quenelle of carrot cardamom sorbet that was bright and refreshing. The top, in this picture seen dangling over the edge of my plate, was candied, and the root was pickled. Once again, a mix of sweet, light, savory, and the bite of vinegar made an appearance, and once again, it hit the mark. As with most sorbet courses, the bites were the perfect size, and at this point in the meal, one bite of each (maybe two for the sorbet, because it was quite good) was all I needed .

COURSE 9: Sponge- orange/carob/buttermilk/darjeeling

The night was cold and we were about three hours into a meal tucked away in the back room of a gallery where there might as well have been a fireplace going. We were all feeling filled with conversation, wine, food, and little side conversations on how we’d stay in touch sprung up on different sides of the table.

Last course coming. Out from the kitchen came our hosts with our desserts.

“Thank you all for coming tonight. For our last course, we have a carob sponge cake with a buttermilk darjeeling gelato and an orange cream.”

The cake wasn’t a slice, but in fact a tiny sponge that was moist and had absorbed a lot of the lighter carob flavor. Alongside that was a quenelle of a buttermilk darjeeling gelato, as promised, and the spoonful of orange curd. The sharpness of the orange (was it a whole orange curd?) really woke me up from the thousand flavor evening that I’d just experienced, and the gelato was mellow and soothing. I’ve done custards flavored with black tea, and this was another variation on a theme, one that I continue to enjoy to this day.

***

The plates went back to the dishroom licked clean, and we were all invited to mill about as a gallery reception was taking place directly afterward. We chatted with our fellow diners for a bit, and I got to speak with those responsible for the dinner. The source of the phantom meowing, we had discovered, was a tiny serval kitten about two weeks old, and as the dinner hour waned, he was passed around from person to person, enjoying all the attention and smells of seafood that permeated the warm, inviting atmosphere.

Between the room, the diners, and the imagination and creativity of the chef, the dinner will never be the same twice. In talking with the chef, I realized that it’s a 72 hour marathon of menu planning, product acquisition, prepping, and service that make an event like this come together, and each experience, each weekend dinner is different. They may share some similarities from week to week, but it gives the chef the impulse to create and adjust from service to service. As with all those who have a passion for things that come out of a kitchen, the ideal situation is to cook your food, and cook it your way to those who can appreciate it. If it is a success, it rests on your shoulders as a work of art that you can be proud of. If it misses the mark, there’s always room for improvement. It is the constant pursuit of innovation and invention that drives those who cook to create flavors and menus that challenge diners’ palates, and it is the willingness of those who dine to entrust those palates to the chef that enables the creativity to flourish.

If I cook for you, all I ask is that you eat and enjoy yourselves. That’s what the Crux really is. The thought that goes into each successful dinner service yields a deconstructed idea of what the chef really wants to put out there. There is the idea of a finished product. Strip it down. Build it back up. Adapt. Taste. Adjust. Try it once. Try it twice. Retool it. It’s a constant state of recreation. The menu will never be finished. It might be similar to something you’ve tried in the past, but it will never be the same. Isn’t that fascinating? Isn’t that the way you’d always want to eat?

Taking a little breather here between courses. A friend recently started a blog and website for his farm in Southern Indiana, Ghostwood Farm. 

In addition to being awesomely named, it’s a working chemical free farm that began running test crops in 2011, and will be up and running with laying and meat chickens for 2012, as well as set crops of asparagus, melons, corn, and a bunch of other excellent produce.

How do I know it will be excellent? In addition to being a no-nonsense place where barnyard animals can coexist in the acreage with crops and wildlife, it’s run by a couple of hard working environmental scientists who actually care about what they raise, how they raise it, and their relationship with nature and how it affects what they choose to share with the public and their own family in terms of food.

Over at the website, read Adam’s first blog post.  It’s contemplative, articulate, and thought provoking. A lot of questions have been asked of me to show where the food comes from, and how it gets the way it does. I can do it a little bit, but Adam is your guy for this. Study up. With blogging, he’s just starting out, but I see good things coming from both the blog and the farm.

Also, check out their page on Facebook. Become a fan, and keep abreast of everything happening down on the farm.

Continued from Part 1

***

I haven’t done pop-up dinners before. Sure, I’ve  cooked and plated for private catering events, and hosted my share of dinners, but this? This was something different, and I had no idea what to expect. My experience dining in high end restaurants is middling, as I’ve been to the big names, although for eonomical reasons I don’t make a habit of it. When I make the choice to dine out, I select dinners that provide something that justifies both the cost and experience. Rarely, I find myself paying 20 dollars for a burger billed as “ground short rib” with an apple slaw, as I did during last year’s restaurant week in Chicago. Although it’s typical to expect paying a premium price for a quality dish at a Michelin starred restaurant, so often the price does not justify the creativity. Retaining a background in foodservice and knowing my wholesale price points, $15 for a coffee-scented two bite fluke sashimi was not high on my list of things to revisit. However, with the first course of our dinner at Crux, a different take on the fish proved my earlier interaction with fluke was probably just a mistake.

COURSE 1: FLUKEraw/grilled/caramelized/coconut

There is nothing on that plate that jumps out at me as inappropriate. Two bites of fish, coconut caramel, and grill marks painted on with charred beet reduction. Simple, fresh, balanced, uncomplicated, and satisfying. All the flavors that were mentioned as the chef came out to tell us what we were about to eat were indeed present, and played well off of one another. I didn’t have to guess where the coffee scent was coming from as with the first dish (I guessed it was there because I looked at the espresso machine rumbling across the dining room).

There was just a fleck of salt on the fish, and it was treated kindly, letting the freshness speak as the prominent flavor to set the tone. A tiny paintbrush was used to mark with the charred beet, and the coconut as caramel was presented as a preparation that I’d never think to try.  As only the first part of a whole, it was an unfussy introduction to what came next.

COURSE 2: CRAB- pretzel/cheddar/habanero

I was wary of the description. How do you separate the flavors of what looks to be a mall food court combination of pretzel choices from one of my favorite bits of seafood, the crab?

Was hoping for this

I have so many memories from Seattle tied to a Dungeness crab. It was the first thing I bought when I went out to visit the lady for the first time, making crabcakes out of what she had available: Picked a dungeness crab, mixed it with mashed potatoes and pepperoncini, and rolled it in triscuits. I know it can be made to taste great with similar combinations, but I still had reservations. After all, this is what we typically hold up in our memory when we think of the combination listed above:

Imagining this

Seeing the first course, though, I was almost positive it had to be something completely different. Even as a capable cook, I couldn’t picture how it would turn out.

If I find myself at a chain restaurant, eating a Cobb salad, I can tell the order in which they sprinkled the egg, the bacon, and that they were instructed to add five cobs of baby corn and six tomato wedges. That’s all I can think of when I think of a Cobb Salad. I couldn’t see past a big soft pretzel smothered in cheese, stuffed with crab(?) I was betting on something that would break down my floating thoughts of what it could be, and build around what I couldn’t even fathom.  The servers came into the dining room carrying bowls.

Oh. My. Bearded. GodoftheOceans.

There’s the crab. That stuff is…cheese? The…pretzel? Habanero? The broth. It’s got to be spicy, right? Like, really spicy? Wow. When a menu makes you think about the conventions of what you can do with flavors, and how you can present them to yield a dish that turns your dining experience upside down, the objective is virtually accomplished. In presentation, the chef and artist can  paint their canvas with colors and shapes, as every kitchen counter serves as their easel. Bucking the conventions of how people expect them to serve a dish, though? That’s the master stroke.

“What we have here is a pretzel consomme with habanero and cornflower petals, encapsulated 20 month old cheddar cheese, and dungeness crab on top. Make sure your mouth is closed before biting down on the cheddar to get the full feel.”

I took a spoonful of the consomme. This broth had tricked me into believing it was a pretzel. Without treading into Wonka territory, he said it would taste like a pretzel, and it tasted like a pretzel. Whaaaaat the hell? Not only that, but it had the finish of a pepper. The heat didn’t bring the dish down at all. It wasn’t overbearing. It didn’t make my upper lip sweat like too much Old Bay on a Bushel at the Boardwalk. Like the best uses of peppers, it was flavor first, finish last.

When I was cooking, I missed the boat on a lot of what’s become more prevalent on menus these days. Foams were just starting to hit middle America, and by the time I made it out to New York, they were over. As for how cheddar cheese becomes encapsulated? It dates me, but I have no idea. When I eat it, does it matter? Nope. That’s for me to ponder for days on end after the fact.

How was it? It was like an egg yolk, barely cooked and runny. It was like a soup dumpling, where you can’t fathom how they got that stuff in there. It was also comforting, because it was cheese. Curious, and similar to the burst you get when you try a little caviar.

A little sexy. What? Egg yolks can be sexy. For those in the know, Juzo Itami’s film Tampopo demonstrates this to great effect.

Lastly, I savored the bite of crab. I swirled it in the consomme, mopped up a couple of cornflower petals, and popped it in my mouth. I don’t feel guilty at all when I say that dungeness is the best crab to eat. Maybe it’s a bit of bias, but having had the Dungeness/Blue Crab/King Crab debate more than a hundred times, fresh dungeness is hard to beat.

The crab course was a standout. It is to the credit of the chef that I say that I want to eat it again, but next time, I want to eat it in a different fashion. In hindsight, I was so wrapped up in the individual components of the dish that I feel I neglected to mix them to the full effect.

As the plates were being cleared, over the comments, most of which seemed to be centered around that encapsulated cheese, our dining room manager commiserated with each diner’s pining for more.

“It’s so difficult to see them sitting on the countertop back in the kitchen and not want to keep eating them.”

I know. We all knew.

***

Continued in Part 3

Become a Fan on Facebook

Follow the Blog on Twitter

If you’ve read my blog before, you know that through food, I have tried to find a better understanding of why we eat the way we do. I cook at home four to five times a week, and the meals that I make together with my lady are shared as we sit down and eat at the same time, in the same room.

I understand that most people don’t do this anymore. We eat on the run, or when we go out to eat, we sit and critique what’s on our plate while keeping to ourselves. We can relay our night out to our friends, but often, it’s more about the idea that you can tell them what you did rather than relive the experience with fondness.

For weeks, I’ve been thinking about eating at CRUX.  I’ve followed the Twitter account of both the chef and the restaurant, I’ve looked at menus, followed what’s happening on the Facebook page, and nothing that I’ve done has come close to the replicating the total experience of being in the moment around a table with ten strangers with whom over the course of a three hour meal you have become familiar. The concept of of familiarity, broken down, is to become well-acquainted on a family footing with someone who enhances your comfort level. The easiest way for me to accomplish that with some sense of ease is around a dinner table. In their efforts to create an evening of intimacy and curiousity, the table was set for an evening exploring the unknown.

***

Earlier in the week, I had made a short visit back home to Madison to visit with friends who have been overseas. The one night of my short stay, we visited another restaurant that I’ve been meaning to try for a long time, 43 North. It’s run by an old culinary friend of mine, Nick Johnson. Formerly of Restaurant Magnus in Madison, he has since moved his James Beard nominated talents a couple blocks up the street, and we were fortunate to dine with a new acquaintance in his company.

Over the course of that meal, I remembered that the joy of dining is taking pleasure in those with whom you are surrounded, but also in entrusting those who are preparing your meal with the fate of your palate. We subscribe, as a culture, to flavors and textures that are simple and pleasing, hence the trends of pesto, sun dried tomatoes, etc., but with balance and inventiveness come the meals that leave lasting impressions on the senses.

***

On the short ride back to Chicago, I found out that two tickets for Friday Night’s pop-up dinner had just become available from a post on Twitter:

RT @brandonbaltzley: Cancelation of three for this weeks bodies of water dinner @glryprovocateur . Reserve through cruxrestaurant@gmail.com

Bodies of Water? Set to the music of Isis? I had read recently that they were able to accommodate diners with a variety of preferences, but since this dinner was from the looks of the menu going to be mostly seafood, I figured it would be the best opportunity to get my feet wet with the restaurant. The theme of Bodies of Water? Intriguing hook. In quick order, I went about making a reservation for two for that Friday Night.

When Friday came around, our pleasant 50 degree weather had changed to 6 inches of snow, which by then had devolved into the sludge. We made our way up to Gallery Provocateur, the site of that night’s dinner, just before 7, where we were greeted and led through the gallery to the back room. The walls were covered in artwork of sea monsters, Cat-eyed vixens painted on handbags, and various tattooed hides stretched with leather string.

The table was set for 12, with dripping candelabras and a large television in the background playing a silent documentary about undersea life with a cuttlefish scurrying along the sea floor. Scattered alongside the handwritten menus and embroidered napkins were tiny glasses with live fish flitting around.

For the opening few minutes, we remained quiet and reserved, both mesmerized by the wonders of the briny deep and slightly hesitant to introduce ourselves to our fellow diners. As bottles of wine were opened, everyone began to relax, and after introductions and a collective pondering over where a phantom cat was meowing from, we were ready to begin our meal.

***

Continued Part 2

Continued Part 3

Follow the blog on Twitter

Become a Fan on Facebook

I’ve done all these entries, and haven’t done the one that tells people how to fillet a fish. Maybe it’s because there is a lack of whole fish in the Midwest retail market at affordable prices. Maybe it’s because I just haven’t gotten out to get some. In any case, Here’s a tutorial on how to dress a fish from its whole state to fillets.

First, choose your fish. There are flat fish, like fluke, halibut, flounder, sole, etc., and there are round fish, which usually can be broken down into two groups of large and small. Since I don’t want to buy a whole swordfish or tuna (maybe a tuna, but that’s for a later post) and break it down, we’ll be focusing on the smaller fish. Today, I’ll be using a walleye, the jewel of the Great Lakes, but this method of filleting can be used with a salmon, trout, or any fish that you catch in a lake or river that you have to take the guts out from the bottom. I will try to be discreet with the pictures.

As I said, I will be using a walleye. It’s a great fish, cooking up light, flaky, and moist. In general, it doesn’t have the muddy taste that a lot of freshwater fish have, but it does have a good flavor when baked, broiled, or fried in the great North Midwestern Fish Fry tradition. In contrast to its boring cousin, the whitefish, Walleye is more firm and has a higher oil content, which lends itself well to most cooking methods.

Without further ado, here is the walleye:

It weighs about a pound and three quarters, but keep in mind that as you pare it down, a lot of it will be waste.

Step 1: Put it in the sink. Grasp the fish by the tail with one hand, and run the fish under cool water. With the other, take either a fish scaler (available at all fine fish scaling stores and some kitchen implement stores that may rhyme with Billiams Fonoma) or a sharp knife, and rake the scales off using a motion going from the tail to the collar. Hold your blade almost perpendicular to the skin, as the severe angle of the knife will get under the scales and lift them up, separating them from the fish and running into the bottom of the sink. This will be messy, but it is  one of the most important steps if you want to have a crispy skin and nice presentation. If you want to eat the skin, YOU MUST DO THIS. Nothing stinks more than getting a scale in your mouth when you’re enjoying a nice dinner. It’s like getting a popcorn husk stuck on your tongue.

Repeat this process with the other side of the fish. (PROTIP: You can also use a clean steel scouring pad, not Brillo or anything that has detergent in it, to scrape off some scales. It works well) When you’re done, rinse the fish, pat it dry, and make an incision directly below the chin on the underside of the fish, and running the length of the belly all the way back to the anal fins.

Here’s another helpful tip: Fish like walleye, snapper, branzini and many other small species that have spikes on their fins that secrete a toxin to help protect them in the wild from predators. From my experience working in places where they throw and catch fish as part of a daily routine, do not get poked. If you need to, trim these fins off first thing. This includes the dorsal fin (The big one on top) and the anal fin (on the bottom, close to the tail). Anything that looks like it could be a poisonous dagger, try to stay away from. Also, if you’re thinking of saving scraps for soup, you can leave these out. They have next to no nutritional value, and they don’t make the soup taste any better.

So your fish, huh? It has this incision now. Wow. There’s guts. Take them out and throw them away. Don’t be a hero. It’ll all be over soon. Just put them in a bag, and leave it in the sink to put all the other stuff in.

Guts removed, your fish should now look like this:

Pretty Cool. You’re doing it. Rinse out the cavity, and pat it dry, placing it on your cutting board. If you notice, my cutting board in the picture was too small, so I’ve improvised at home by putting two together. This doesn’t really work. If you have a surface that is easily cleanable that is not a semiporous wood, but is stable and can deal with a little slipping around, go with that. You can also put a dish towel underneath if the freshness or sliminess of your fish is too much to keep still.

Okay. Now that your fish is on your cutting surface, sharpen your knife. Get your steel, tri-stone, or whatever sharpening implement out and sharpen your knife. Nobody likes working with a dull knife. If you don’t have one of these, in a pinch, you can use the bottom, unfinished edge of a ceramic mug, holding your blade at a 30-45 degree angle to the surface, and giving it a few passes. It is important as you sharpen your knife, to make sure you use the same basic angle every time. If you do not, you run the risk of creating a wavy, uneven surface on the cutting edge of your blade. It will be dull, and the life of your knife will waste away in sadness, never living up to its full potential.

Do not use a serrated knife. This will rip your fish.

Sidebar: I don’t watch Top Chef. Why? The first season, I saw so many people rip and tear their fish up when they were challenged to fillet a fish. Professionals had never filleted fish before. It was disgraceful. Their technique was all over the place, and they left so much meat on the bone that, as a former coworker once said, “it would feed my family back in Portugal for a week, but they wouldn’t eat it out of protest for a job done so poorly.” You get the right tool for the job, be deliberate in your cuts, study up on how to do it, and just do it.

At the end of the day, though, it’s just a fish. When I started out at the Market in Seattle, I thought I was alright at filleting fish, but I didn’t really even have the basic skills down. For the first few months, I was the hawker, the guy out front bringing people in, the guy throwing the fish over the counter. After a while, I wanted to start filleting, so I watched, asked questions, learned, and tried.

I wasn’t very good at first. I wouldn’t say I tore up the first fish I tried, but I left more than a little bit of meat on the bone. The point though was that I had started learning the right way of doing things. As time went on, I got better. As my boss told me, “As you get more comfortable, you’ll understand that it’s just a fish.” Yes, it had a life, and especially in the Pacific Northwest, where fish is so tied to the culture that you can’t separate the fish from the region, it’s a part of the every day, but it’s just a fish. Once I understood that, my movements with a knife became more relaxed. The motion became more fluid, and I started getting better. After about two hundred fish, I was decent. Not great, but not horrible, either. There are guys out there who have filleted more fish in a week than I have in the past ten years. That’s all they do. I see them at competitions, at Fish houses, cutting events. They’re magnificent. To see someone who has so much control over their craft that they can do it with great practical flourish and agility is a marvelous thing. I don’t care if it’s watching a football game or listening to a panel discussion on the mating habits of primates at the Jane Goodall Center. There’s something to be said for watching a master at work.

Okay, now that we have that tidbit out of the way, look at that picture again. The one right above all that tangential nonsense. Notice the part of the fish closest to the head. The little C shape behind where the gills are is called the collar. At the front of the belly incision, you’ll want to make sure that you have cut all the way up to and through the arrow shaped point under the chin. This is the first cut you will make to make your fillet look like a fillet

Apologies for the following pictures not showing the action of cutting the fish. It’s hard to hold an iPhone with a slimy hand and cut with the other.

Lift up the gill flap, and angle your knife blade toward the head, When you feel the spine, angle the blade edge back, running right along the spine, parallel to the table. Angle the tip down pointing at the table, and lift up the bottom edge of the fillet so that your knife does not catch the flesh and cause any marks or gouges when you run the blade from the collar to the tail.

Are you at that point?

Good.

You should have the handle of the knife underneath the belly incision, and the point of the knife angled slightly downward toward the table along the top edge of the fish.

Now, fish is delicate, so it doesn’t take much effort to fillet it off the bone. By drawing the knife toward you with your strokes while applying gentle pressure in the direction of the tail, you should be able to feel your knife slicing through the pinbones that are along the ribcage.

Guide the knife through until you get past the ribcage, and then flatten it back out so the blade is once again parallel to the table. Finish slicing the length of the fish and set the fillet aside.

Repeat with the other side. Here’s how it should look when you’re done.

Flip the fillets over so they’re skin side down. Trim off the collar, as shown in this next picture.

Those little pieces that are separated are the collar.

Once the collar has been removed, you want to take your knife and trim off the white part that was inside the belly cavity. Get the blade as close to the white part as you can, and angle it down. Do a  quick draw of the  blade under it, and slice the entire part right off. If the swimmer fins on the underbelly of the fish are still attached, you may find it easier to remove the white part if you trim the fins off before you attempt to cut it off.

Okay, now you have your fillets. If you’ve fully scaled them before you fillet, you can leave them just like that. The skin, after cooking, crisps up nicely, and adds a lot of flavor to the finished product. If you have a good skin with minimal scales, season it with salt and pepper, and saute it for about 4-5 minutes with the skin side on the pan.

With fish, the theory of 10 minutes of cooking time per inch of thickness applies here, and as most fillets fall somewhere under the 3/4″ thickness, it’s best to finish by flipping onto the flesh side for two minutes, giving a light brown to the top without hard cooking all the way through. As with steak, it’s good to undercook it just a little bit, as the residual heat from the meat and cooking vessel will gently finish it, leaving you with a product that is still moist.

If you wish to skin your fish, take your knife at a 45 degree angle, and 1/4″ from the tail, make a cut through the flesh down to the skin. All you need to skin a fish is a small enough tab close to the tail to grasp while you wiggle the skin, not the knife, back and forth. Your knife should be sharp enough to handle it. As you grasp the little tab on the tail, angle your knife the other way at approximately 45 degrees, and pull the skin taut, towards you, wiggling it back and forth against the blade, which is resting where the skin meets the flesh. It should easily separate, and you should be left with a nicely trimmed fillet and a skin with next to no meat on it.

Something like this

It’s okay if there’s a little meat left on the skin. You can go back and do a little patchwork to make it look prettier. Remember, it’s not about how it looks, but how it tastes.

With all foods, I look at where they come from and what other items grow there that would be complimentary. With Fish, Alaskan Halibut may be well matched with pineapple, but your tropical fruit has much more in common with a Tuna or an Opah.

Walleye, one of the prizes of the Great Lakes and a staple of the fish fry, is best suited, in my opinion, to flavors such as mustard and pecans. Freshwater fish, while delicious with citrus, never really gets the same bump from oranges, unless it comes in a side of hollandaise. The Fish Fry is about flavors that stick. The most adventurous that most people get with their flavors with lakefish is adding a squirt of lemon to their tartar sauce. By crusting a walleye with a mixture of panko breadcrumbs and crushed pecans or walnuts sticking to a coating of a thick german mustard, it’s a hearty winter flavor in a lighter package than your meat and potatoes.

Of course, when it comes to what is served best with the walleye, always go for a side of boiled potatoes. Maybe a little dill. Maybe a little butter. With all fish from the Midwest, if you want to keep it authentic, keep it simple. And Enjoy.

***

If you haven’t already, head on over to the Facebook Page and become a fan.

Also, just for fun, a new Twitter Account. Start Following and receiving updates from the blog as they happen, and find more cool things to like about food.