Shiftwork Bites: Semi-Modernist Cuisine Edition
Since I started Shiftwork Bites, my coworkers have been asking me to do something with fish. I've hesitated for one reason. The electric skillet that comprises my primary heat source uses a thermostatically controlled heating element that cycles on and off. It doesn't do a very good job, tending to swing wildly between full-blast and nothing, almost entirely regardless of what temperature you set it on. It will rage into life, blasting the pan's contents with heat until the thermostat shuts it off abruptly. Not exactly the ideal cooking surface for delicate fish.
Then I noticed that, if I set the skillet on warm, it maintains a fairly constant temperature roughly equating to medium-low on my gas range at home. I decided to give it a go with a fish preparation. I'm a big fan of cooking fish skin-on, and love cooking it until crispy, playing up the textural contrast and enjoying all the flavor the skin retains. I sat down and sketched out an idea, shopping the following day before work.
I settled on salmon, mostly because that's what looked freshest when I went to the store. I had planned a dish of crispy-skin fish on a bed of silky butter lettuce, surrounded by a consommé made from gelatin clarified pho stock. I thought it would be fun to incorporate a bit of modern technique into Shiftwork Bites, and the gel-clarified stock seemed like a good bet. I also decided to bring in a bit of brightness via some ponzu, but wasn't quite sure how to work it into the dish.
I'd been experimenting with xanthan gum, a very easy-to-work-with hydrocolloid, and decided that I could use it to make a thickened lacquer out of the ponzu, painting it onto the crispy fish skin just before serving. Xanthan is the perfect hydrocolloid for this application for a number of reasons. It works at room temperatures, while many others require heat to activate the reaction; it is amenable to both acidic and alkali solutions; its thixotropic nature aids in both application and setting of thin layers of flavorful sols, or semi-gels. In short, it's exactly what I needed here.
After being whisked thoroughly with xanthan gum and brushed on, the ponzu would become a semi-gel, enabling it to adhere to the fish without dripping into the other elements, thus offering a targeted burst of flavor, and the suspension of the liquid within the colloidal matrix would prevent it from robbing the fish skin of its lovely crispness. Typically, xanthan is sheared into a liquid at a ratio of about .5 percent or less by weight. I didn't have a scale with me, so I just estimated, adding miniscule amounts and mixing thoroughly, then testing the texture. It took a bit of trial and error, but eventually I landed on the viscosity I was looking for; thick enough to coat and not run, but not yet gummy.
From there, I added in a bright herbal note by mixing together a batch of cilantro oil, playing off of some of the attendant flavors of pho, and also drip-clarified some chili-garlic sauce, distilling it to a clear and vibrantly red liquor, the essence of the pungent condiment. The oil was added to the pho consommé with a coffee stirrer as a pipette, becoming emerald orbs floating in the clear stock. The chile-garlic liquor was meant to partially dress the greens, its vinegary, spicy kick picking up the delicate richness of the butter lettuce.
I'd found some gorgeous-looking white beech mushrooms at the store, and decided they would go in, as well. I lopped off the woody base of the bundle and began breaking it down into individual stems, then flash-sauteed them in a bit of oil to brown and crisp the exteriors, leaving the insides mostly raw. They lent an additional crunch, the outsides nutty and earthy tasting, the insides firm and almost hay-like. A handful of sunflower sprouts added to each bowl could have easily been left out.
The fish cooked almost perfectly, though I had to perch each piece on the ring formed by the heating element, and they took much longer to cook than anticipated. Regardless, the flesh stayed buttery and moist, and the skin became perfectly crackly from the prolonged cooking time. The ponzu lacquer did the trick, staying in place and adding a bright zing with every bite of fish. The lettuce wilted ever so slightly from the heat of the stock and the fish, becoming almost velvety in texture, with a subtle richness that played nicely with all of the other elements. The only letdown was the cilantro oil, which didn't have enough of the herbal kick I was looking for.
Overall, the dish was subtle and elegant, with spicy and meaty notes coming up from the warm pho consommé, and bright and pungent highlights from the ponzu lacquer, all working to support the rich flavor of the fish, itself, the silken textures making the crispy skin seem even crispier. I was pretty pleased with how everything turned out, for a Shiftwork Bites meal. With a little bit of tweaking, it could be a pretty amazing dish; I'm sure the guys would be cool with it if I decided to do that tweaking up at the office.
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