Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Black Sea Bass with Sweet Parsnips, Arrowleaf Spinach, and Saffron-Vanilla Sauce

Wanna know what my professional life has been like over the past week or so? I feel like the waitress in this clip:

(The Electric Company, 1974)

Hoo-boy, I loooooooooooooove the end of the year. Deadlines looming, tempers flaring, people slacking, expectations out-of-proportioning (I know, that was a reach). Good times. What's a girl to do when she has three major bigtime projects due in one week? Ah yes, ignore them all and make black sea bass! You know what? Maybe I should write a book about all the things one can do to procrastinate -- I seem to be a master at it. Only now, my procrastination tactics usually lead to cooking French Laundry dishes with lots of butter and heavy cream and HOLY CRAP no wonder I contemplated buying a pair of Spanx the other day. Time to hit the gym, methinks. Certainly, there will be much more procrastination-induced cooking coming my way, and I've got 5-6 more months of this here cookin' to do, and yipes, I hate the gym. Oh well.

Alright, let's get back on track here. Black bass - check. Parsnips - check. Spinach - check. Saffron-vanilla sauce? Ooooo, baby, I feel a ThomasKellerFaceKisser™ coming on, don't you?

The first thing I did was make the mussel stock. I put two dozen mussels in a pot with a few garlic cloves, a shallot, some thyme and bay leaves, as well as a cup of white wine:

I brought it to a boil, then removed each mussel as it opened (I love the pinging and clanging they make against a stainless steel pot). I saved the mussels for another day (I tossed them in fresh pasta with some leftover stock and the other leftover ingredients from this dish). I strained the stock and let it cool to room temperature:

Next up? Spinach balls (>snerk< I know, I'm 12). When I first read the instructions for this part of the dish, I was a little put off. I'm not a fan of oranges or any citrus in general. The only one I can tolerate is lime, and even that is a stretch. I know that the acids brighten a dish, and I understand the fundamentals of what citrus does and can do in cooking, but I'm still not a fan. Sue me. So, when I saw that I needed to cook the spinach in some orange peel, I rolled my eyes and said to myself (or maybe out loud), "Well, I'm gonna hate this dish, thanks Thomas KELLER >grumblegrumblegrumble<." Yes, even though my middle initial is "M," it clearly does not stand for "maturity."

I got over myself and heated some olive oil in a pan and added three strips of orange zest:

I cooked them until the orange zest started to ripple and pop. I then added the fresh spinach and cooked it until the spinach was fully wilted and most of the moisture was gone:

I removed the orange rind from the spinach and divided it into six equal portions:

I then took each of those portions and wrapped them, one at a time, in a dish towel and wrung out the water so that they formed little spinach balls:

I put these in the fridge to cool until I was ready to finish them just before plating. Next up? Parsnip purée. I love parsnips, and I forget every year how much I love them until they're in season and I see them in the market and I say to myself, "hey, if you love parsnips so much, why don't you marry them? Gah." Again with the maturity. So, imagine my delight and jumping up-and-downness when I realized that I would be cooking these parsnips in CREAM before mashing them. Here's what I started out with:

I peeled it and cut it into half-inch pieces:

I then covered the parsnip pieces with salt, a little water, and HEAVY CREAM, brought it to a boil, then let it simmer for about 35-40 minutes.

While the parsnips were doing their thang, I made the saffron-vanilla sauce. The words alone made my mouth water (the good way, not the pickled oyster way), and when it was cooking, the smells almost made me pass out (again, the good way, not the softshell crab way).

To start, I sliced open a vanilla bean and scraped the seeds into a small saucepan. I added the vanilla pod, some of the mussel stock, and a few saffron threads:

I brought it up to a simmer, then let it simmer until it had reduced to a thicker glaze consistency. I added some cream, continued to let it simmer, then added... wait for it... TEN TABLESPOONS of BUTTER (!!!!!!) whisking them in one at a time until each had melted:

I strained the sauce and then mixed it for a few seconds using my immersion blender, then let it sit on the warm stovetop until I was ready to plate the dish.

At this point, the parsnips were done, so I strained them (reserving the cream) and smashed them through a tamis:

I scraped the purée from the other side of the tamis into a small saucepan and stirred in some of the reserved cream sauce in which I cooked them. They were supposed to be the consistency of mashed potatoes, and they were:

Even from the smell alone, I knew I would be a happpy girl once these hit my tongue.

We're in the homestretch, folks... time for the spinach balls to make a reappearance. I took them out of the fridge, melted some butter in a small sauté pan, then gently rolled them around in the butter bath until they were sufficiently warmed:

I kept them in a 250-degree oven while I did the fish. I'd already cut the bass into six small portions (I did this while I was waiting for the mussels to open up):

Short of getting out a hair dryer, I did everything within my power to make sure the skins were dry. I blotted them with a paper towel. I used the dull side of a knife to squeegee them. I waved them around while I danced naked through the streets of town. Okay, that part was a lie. But really, I dried those skins until they were crying out for some Eucerin because I really wanted them to get crispy. There's nothing worse than soggy-ass fish skin. Well, maybe Pol Pot or Idi Amin might be worse, but you catch my drift. Crispy fish skin can make a dish that much better, and I'm usually pretty good at it. This time, however, I seasoned the fish with salt and pepper (just as I always do), but forgot to dust the skin with a teeny bit of flour. The French Laundry Cookbook doesn't suggest using flour in this preparation, so I followed their instructions as written, but I really should've floured the skins. They got crispy enough, but parts of the skin fell off, or got stuck to the pan. You'll see in the final plating photos what I mean. I knew it wouldn't be THAT big a deal, so I didn't beat myself up about it. The parts of skin that stayed ON the fish were crispalicious, so I don't totally suck.

To cook the fish, I simply heated some canola oil in a pan and put the fish in skin side down first:

I then flipped them over to lightly "kiss" (as the book says) the fleshy side of the fish. I removed them from the pan and let them drain on a paper towel-covered plate. I reheated the mashed parsnips (and added a few drops of cream sauce to make sure they didn't dry out) and got everything ready for plating. Here goes:

First, a small pool of saffron-vanilla sauce:

Then, the parsnip purée:

Then, a spinach ball:

Last, but not least, the black bass:

This is one of those dishes for which I wish someone would invent Smell-o-Vision. Or really, Taste-o-Vision. If I could make this dish for each and every one of you, I would. It's that good. And, a pleasant surprise, since I didn't expect to be making this dish until much later in the process. I've written about it before, but I have an insanely methodical way about cooking these dishes according to seasonal availability and maximizing efficiency of ingredients. I have more spreadsheets and lists than is probably normal, but it's how I roll. I wasn't planning to make this dish until spring. But with the Great Truffle Cock-up of 2007, I had to move some things around, and this one seemed like one I could do at this time of year without much trouble, and what a great thing it turned out to be.

The judges have ruled and it's official: this dish is better than a French Laundry at Home PlateLicker™. It is, indeed, a ThomasKellerFaceKisser™, meaning that if he were here in my dining room, he'd get a big smooch on the cheek for coming up with this dish. It's one of the best things I've ever eaten, and even better is that it was a hit with my two toughest critics -- a 9-year old boy ("C") and an 11-year old girl ("M"). Seriously, these two could give Frank Bruni a run for his money. Both were happy to abandon any mode of decorum and gleefully cleaned their plates with their oft-licked index finger. That's a sign of success if ever there was one.

As for the adults, we loved it. We more than loved it. We totes hearted it. For those of you who have the book and haven't tried anything from it yet, try this dish. And, I'll even go as far as to say that you don't have to follow every single step. Just use this combination of ingredients or elements in a way that works for you, and I think you'll be just as happy. I had a little bit of every element of this dish left over at the end of it, so I stored it in the fridge and the next night for dinner, tossed it with some fresh pasta. Granted, it's rich, so when you inevitably burp an hour or so after eating it, you'll emit the odor of saffron and vanilla, but I don't think that's a bad thing, do you?

Ten out of ten on this one. A galaxy of gold stars. Smiley-face stickers out the wazoo. And, happy stomachs in the neighborhood. Ain't nothin' better...

Up Next: "Pot Au Feu" -- Braised Prime Beef Short Ribs with Root Vegetables and Sautéed Bone Marrow

Fish and mussels from BlackSalt
Produce from Whole Foods
Thyme from my garden
Other herbs and spices from the Takoma Park-Silver Spring Co-op
Bogle Chardonnay (one of the best-kept secrets out there; it's really inexpensive and it's really good)
365 organic butter
Organic Valley cream

Music to Cook By: Angela Kaset; Live at the Bluebird. My friend, Claudia, turned me on to this Nashville singer-songwriter, and I couldn't be more grateful. Angela has one of those voices that soothes, haunts, inspires, calms, and resonates in the deepest, darkest places of your heart and your head. I always like to say about Nashville that it's the best music you've never heard, and Angela is a prime example of that. I haven't been able to stop listening to her stuff (best heard while sitting in low light at the dining room table with a glass of wine), and it's made me want to learn more about the other singer-songwriters in Nashville who've penned some of American music's greatest hits, but who also have amazing talents that are rarely seen or heard.


Anonymous said...

Wow...I have a hard time imagining a more delicious dish than this. I think I love every single ingredient, and the combination seems even better in my head. I'm hoping to get the cookbook for Christmas, and this dish (along with the Cream of Walnut soup) is very high on the list.

Anonymous said...

Yum. This sounds great.

In the end, what was your Final Answer about the orange zest? Did you like what it added to the spinach balls? (I know I would like that--I've become a fan of a bit of fruity acid added to a lot of things.

Ah, short ribs next. I'm looking forward to your feedback on that because soon, very soon, I'm going to try cooking short ribs.

Marilyn said...

That did look good, but I can't wait to read about your Pot Au Feu experience. Bravo again.

Sarah said...

That looked and sounded delicious, your neighbors are so lucky!!!

On an aside Bogle is a good wine and great price. Bogle also makes a limited edition wine called Phantom, a few dollars more then their regular wine. It is a mix red I believe, and it is yummy.

Unknown said...

The hubby was looking over my shoulder as I was reading this and giggling and I almost had him... "oh that looks good, oh that looks good too, that looks really goo.... oh, is that fish? Ew."

But personally, I think it looks fantastic. And Happy Thoughts on the professional life.

Anonymous said...

Wow .... you finally did it. You convinced me that I have to have "The French Laundry" cookbook. I have been looking at it for ages, but this recipe was the last straw. So, I went out and ordered it from Amazon.

Thanks, Kimberly

Anonymous said...

MMM! This, I think, WILL be the first TK recipe I attempt - inspired by you.

And - um - SHHHHH on the Bogle. Let's just keep it between us, eh? No need to have the distributors racking the price up because all your die-hard fans caused a run on the market :)

Anonymous said...

First, it does look amazing, and sounds amazing and I don't doubt tasted, well...amazing. And I would also like to note that despite a frazzled week you apparently just banged this dish out with no real hint of fear of the outcome. That is encouraging to us true amateurs who remain intimidated by multi-layered multi-step/layer dishes.

But as to this procrastination thing, it should be noted that you not only procrastinate, you provide the readers with the ability to procrastinate, to check for updates to follow links to other sites, to check in again and read the comments. You have created a procrastination multiplier effect, where your adventures feed (metaphorically) our procrastination efforts.

Now I have to get back to work . . .

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad you liked this dish. It is one of my favorites. Beautiful job plating, it looks wonderful.

queenofsheba said...

On a completely different note, I totally remember that bit from the Electric Company! I love her freakout. I hope you aren't out of sweet rolls.

Chris Pople said...

Hi there - just discovered your website by following a link from the Food Blog awards page. This is fantastic stuff, really entertaining.

If you're a real glutton for punishment may I suggest you have a go at one of Heston Blumenthal's "In Search Of Perfection" dishes. One of them involves stitching duck skin to chicken wire, I kid you not.

Anonymous said...

I just happened on your blog & totally love it! It's great to have somebody else's experiences to compare with. (I was thrilled that your first attempt at Agnolotti looked just the same as mine!)

I'd been considering this sea bass recipe for a holiday dinner party. (Clever you, to try it out for me just in the nick of time!) OK, I'm taking your pictures to the kitchen with me, & am going for it!

Nic Heckett said...

Why not use the hairdryer? And do you use Kashmir saffron? It is IMHO the best around, and all profits go to feed hungry jihadists (joke).

Anita (Married... with dinner) said...

Congrats on being in the finals for both Humor and Best New Blog on the Well Fed awards :D

Carol Blymire said...

JoP: you're right -- I forgot to mention how AWESOME the spinach is since it was cooked in orange zest. I'm totally making it that way from now on. It was really yummy -- and the leftovers really flavored my pasta dish nicely.

cowboymikemc said...

Hi, I found your blog through Ruhlman's, & I must say I thouroughly enjoy your sense of humor and chutzpah. If you haven't worked as a professional cook/chef, you certainly have the skills and attitude to do so. You think like a chef, talk like one(Cock-Up), and your food looks really good. I have worked as a cook and a chef since '85, CIA '91, and I don't think I would try every recipe in the book. You're nuts...I love it. Keep it up.

Anonymous said...

You are just awesome.

And I don't know why, but your blog brings out this slangy, big city sarcasm, in me. So much so, that my foreign husband (I live in outside N.A.) generally can't understand me much after my weekly dose.

What do you think about subsitituting celery root for parsnips (parsnips are not available here)? It's been so long since I had a parsnip, I don't remember how they taste.

Catastrophysicist said...

I cooked this recipe last wednesday at my girlfriends friends apartment in Philly with nothing but a margarita mixer, 2-qt pot, non-stick pan and a butter knife. Not joking. Homegirl had no kitchen equipment. This is what happens when you blindly commit to doing something while on vacation. This recipe has got to be one of the easiest in the book, and anyone toying with the idea of taking a stab at a FL recipe should try this one. As for dry fish skin, I simply took the fillets out of the packaging and let them air-dry in the fridge for a few hours, and that's all. Crispy Fish Skin can be yours too.

Squidly said...

I made this today...great recipe! So many components, I thought timing would be an issue, but it really wasn't too bad. My beurre monte' separated a bit as you can see in the pictures here. In retrospect I'd make more spinach and try to find a way to make the parsnips more liquid/creamy (more cream at the end?)

Still, a spectacular taste combination that we'll revisit soon. I swear I don't know how Keller thinks up this stuff.

Anonymous said...

Let me say first off, i love your blog!! And now for the question..

My sauce broke when I made this, and it was doing fine until the immersion blender bit, which i think was supposed to emulsify it and it just kind of sepperated it once i put it on the stove to warm. I know this is a broader question in disguise (i.e. how do you make a butter sauce correctly) but any tips would be apperciated.

thanks again!!

Unknown said...

I just found this site and tried the recipe the same way and wow! The wife and kid loved it. Thank you for all the work you put into this.