Monday, 3 August 2009

Learning to Cook Fish

Fish has always been my nemesis in the kitchen (anyone who saw my unfortunate appearance on MasterChef Goes Large a couple of years ago would have seen me carbonise a defenceless piece of tuna....) and so I have tended to avoid cooking fish at all costs. However, The Milestone, that fabulous bar and restaurant in Shalesmoor has recently started to offer a range of Saturday cooking classes, having done one some months ago called "Nose to Tail" where we learned how to cook pigs cheeks and all manor of strange and under-used but delicious cuts of meat and finding it to be very liberating (well if you can peel the face off a pig....) I decided to book another one of their courses simply entitled "Fish" as I hoped to learn some similar skills and overcome my fear of all things aquatic.

The Milestone's cookery schools run once per month currently and at the time of writing cost £75 for the day (10.30am til about 4.00pm) and includes drinks and lunch (often something you have cooked yourself during the class) and all your ingredients (my advice would be to skip breakfast as there is lots to eat throughout the day, but they will happily provide cartons for you to take home things you can't eat, and there is usually something part prepared to take home to cook for dinner if you've any room!) At first glance, that might seem like quite a lot to pay for a day out, but believe you me, if you take the time to compare the prices of similar courses around the country - you are getting HUGE value for money (well this is Yorkshire after all!!!) as most courses in this price bracket last normally around 2 -3 hours.

On this occasion a couple of friends came with me and the class was quite busy - around 12 of us gathered behind our tables in the upstairs restaurant dinning room which is where the classes are based. The format for the day seemed to follow the same procedure as before - head chef Simon and his sous chef James demonstrate a technique (in this case the way to fillet both flat and round fish, including the ingenious "V" boning technique which made me very happy and my fish tweezers forever redundant!) and then teach you a dish using the ingredient you have just prepared. On our course (18th July) we tackled gilt head bream, plaice, trout and mackerel and finished the day with mussels.

The bream was the first fish we got our hands on, after the guys had demonstrated all the techniques and we all gutted and scaled them and then took the two fillets off (bit tricky as for some of us it was the first attempt we'd ever made but both chefs (and the owners Mum) were on hand to point us (or our knifes!) in the right direction if we went astray. Once we had the fillets off the bones, we then had to pin bone them and this is where the revelation of the day occurred for me - in restaurants, chefs don't spend hours grappling with tweezers and bones which refuse to be extract, oh no, they very carefully follow the central line of bones and make a narrow V shaped incision on either side and hey presto, out pop the bones in one quick slice!!! Admittedly, you do loose a tiny bit of fish, but to be honest, it's nothing worth worrying about and could be slung in the stock pot if you felt overly precious about it. The fillets of bream on this occasion were to form the basis of our lunch, with the additional of a chickpea and spinach curry (very easy and delicious even for someone like me who isn't keen on chick peas). The fillets were simply pan fried, skin down (having slightly oiled the skins first) on a sheet of grease proof paper (a neat trick to make your pans non-stick if they aren't, but make sure you trim the edges so they aren't on a naked flame as it can be hard to disguise black paper flakes as pepper.......)

After lunch, which was taken downstairs in the pub, we returned to tackle the plaice. I had always been really scared of flat fish - they seem so small and thin that I couldn't understand how you could be left with any fish once you removed the bones, but here came the days second revelation for me - flat fish are sooooo much easier to fillet that their round cousins. Follow the lateral line, make and incision on one side of it, using a very flexible filleting knife (in this case the importance of a good sharp and flexible knife cannot be highly stressed enough) and side it down and along the bones, gently peeling the fillet away as you go. Turn the fish and repeat on the top fillet, and flip over and repeat again twice on the bottom. We pan fried the fillets again in the same was as we had the bream, but this time made a sauce in the pan (minus the grease proof) with butter cooked just until the browning point (buerre noissette) which you stop cooking at that point with the additional of lemon juice, samphire and capers. Quick (the whole cooking process took less than 5 minutes) and delicious - the definition of home form work cooking - even if you added the filleting into the time frame, dinner could be ready in under 15 minutes (10 with practice).

We then took on the trout, a round fish again, but this time no need to scale it, so it was simply gutted, and left whole this time, on the bone, to cook "en papiotte" (or to the Yorkshire folk amongst us - in a bag!) We simply crammed the fish with thinly sliced onion, julienne carrot strips, a couple of wedges of lemon, some salt, pepper and cardamom seeds with a big blob of butter, placed it on a sheet of grease proof paper and folded over the edges in the way you would crimp a Cornish pasty until you had sealed from tail almost all the way around. We then poured a couple of tablespoons of wine into the parcel, sealed it again and put it into the cooler. These were for us to take home and bake (hot oven for 12 - 15 mins) later for tea - and darn tasty it was too.

Mackerel was the final fish of the day, again, no scaling required, just gutting and in this instance we butterfly boned it - once gutted you simply open it up and press down on the central line of fish, from the skin side, turn it back to flesh side and the whole bone structure then just simply lifts from tail to head. The mackerel were again to be cooked at home, Morrocan style, so we marinated the fillets in a little harissa let down with olive oil, and made a cous cous, pinenut and raisin salad to serve on the side. This was a less effective dish, but I think the quality of the fish deteriorated over the course of the day in the hot room so I would be tempted to try it again with fresher fish.

The finale was a lesson in how to prepare and clean fresh mussels - the interesting point here was that the simple mantra of throw open when raw but closed when cooked is not quite right - open raw mussels may well be fine and fresh - they are alive and are just "gasping" so a sharp tap should close them. If they remain open, then yes do throw them. We made a bowl of moules marinare, simple and classic so I won't bore you with the recipe here.

All in all, the three of us had a very memorable and enjoyable day and I for one have certainly put into practice the skills I learned already and will going back to "Dinner Party Secrets" very soon. Nice one The Milestone!

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