I don’t want to just come out and pat myself on the back but I? Fucking RULE.
Thomas Keller. The French Laundry Goddamn Cookbook, none of that scaled-down pansy Bouchon bistro shit.* Black sea bass with spinach, parsnip puree and saffron vanilla sauce. One of the best fucking things I’ve ever put in my mouth.
*I kid because I love. And because I can.
Sometimes I try to be arty and I just…shouldn’t.
I’d like to say that those were all the pots and pans needed to complete this dish, but that would be exaggerating. MANY MANY MORE pots and pans were needed than can be pictured here, some pans had to be washed out and used twice, and still more pans had to be quickly smelted out of scrap iron to accommodate the many steps. Not that I mind, because I’m still having aftershock mouthgasms lo these two hours after having taken my last bite of food.
I’ll be upfront with you: I chose this dish partly because my last French Laundry Smackdown attempt involved fish and was what some might call a “spectacular failure” or “Ishtaresque in the magnitude of its horror,” and I was hoping for some kind of redemption. I also chose it because, while it has several moving parts, it didn’t involve starting five days in advance, browning 40 pounds of veal bones or pre-preparing 13 background recipes. (Although it did technically require a tamis, which I still technically do not “have.”)
I was also intrigued by the flavor combo, because when I hear “add the saffron and vanilla to the mussel stock,” “yummy!” is not the first word that comes to mind.*
*What does come to mind: “What the fuck?” Which is usually what comes to mind when I’m contemplating anything Thomas Keller-related.
The only part of making mussels that I like.
I did make the mussel stock, which is the basis for the saffron vanilla sauce, last night; less because it’s so time consuming, more because Brian wanted to have the mussels for dinner. Because you see, you do not actually eat these mussels: they sacrifice their already-pathetic lives so that their juices can enrich some aromatics-spiked white wine, and then their poached carcasses are discarded. I probably shouldn’t judge; mussels may well have rich inner lives. But I will judge, because I don’t like mussels, they’re chewy and weird and as a general rule I don’t think we should eat things that have beards.
I mean, they’re so creepy, and there’s all the slurping… just can’t.
They do make a lovely stock, though. Much like olives, I don’t enjoy eating the actual foodstuff but I love the flavor it imparts to things. Brian ate the martyred shellfish with some roasted potatoes and crusty bread, and I stashed their vital juices in the fridge.
None of these pictures came out any good at all, so I’m dazzling you with a MONTAGE!
Tonight, I started off with the spinach since it would need to chill after being cooked the first time but before being cooked the second time. Obviously.
The greens were wilted in orange rind-spiked olive oil; if you squint you’ll see the orange peel started to crackle in the hot oil (Or if you’re me, maybe you see a turtle. See how it looks like it has a little head and little legs sticking out? You totally see it). The second shot is a soft-porn take on the wilting spinach, and the third is little piles of the cooked veg waiting to be turned into highly compressed spinach spheres.
Obviously. I mean, what do you do with your spinach? Philistine.
Weaponized spinach: France’s greatest threat.
Each one-ounce portion of spinach is to be placed in a clean tea towel and strangled until the maximum amount of liquid has been removed and the veg retains its ball shape. Having now used the French Laundry Cookbook twice, which is two times more than 99.999% of people in the world have or will ever use it, I feel like I have a pretty good handle on ol’ TK and I’m sure he would want me to use a clean tea towel (preferably of sustainably farmed organic bamboo fibers) for each little spinach clump. To which I say FUCK THAT CRAZY SHIT, I’ll re-use the mostly clean towel I already have on hand. You want me to make twee spinach balls, you take what you get.
The balls went into the fridge to encourage maintenance of their ball-like shape – I don’t know if you know this, but spinach does not naturally occur in sphere form – and turned to my parsnips.
Ghetto Tamis. Description of the above, AND my rapper name.
I love a root vegetable, and parsnips are one of my favorites. Roasted, mashed, in soup; their subtle nutty sweetness is hard to beat. If you don’t think you like parsnips, you should try them.* You may simply, like me, have been confusing them with turnips all this time and avoiding them for that reason, as turnips actually are gross.
You know what makes pureed or mashed parsnips even better? When you cook them in heavy cream for 45 minutes until they’re meltingly tender.
This is meant to be an ultra-smooth puree, but like I said, I still haven’t run out to get a tamis. I pushed them through a ricer instead, and then worked the riced parsnip through a fine mesh strainer. I beat some of the cream in which they’d cooked back in until they were the texture of mashed potatoes, and set them aside to keep warm until I was ready to plate.
*Or make something with parsnips for November’s First Thursday!
Part of dinner, or photo of a petri dish from a 7th grade Science Fair project?
While I was cramping up all the joints in my right hand trying to push parsnips through a fine mesh strainer, I got the sauce started. The reserved mussel stock is the base, but it gets cooked way, way down.
Still a tough call.
I’m talking way down, like Downtown Julie Brown. A full cup of mussel stock is reduced down to a tablespoon or two, and a dash of cream added.
And then? You whisk in TEN TABLESPOONS OF BUTTER until you have a beautiful, thick, fragrant emulsion; strain out the bean pod and saffron threads; and end up with a luscious bright marigold sauce. Since I was working carefully to avoid a broken sauce, I don’t have pix of the process (Brian, my sous, came down with The Cold tonight).
I ran into a slight problem here, and I think it’s because I should have trusted my gut and ignored (GASP!) the instruction in the recipe. See, I’d whisked my butter in at the right temperature, and my sauce was the right consistency in the pot. But TK instructed me to emulsify it using an immersion or regular blender. Which I did, and it thinned the sauce way out; what started as a lovely hollandaise-y emulsion (in terms of texture, not taste) turned into a thick broth that just coated the back of a spoon. It still had good flavor, but had lost its fantastic body.
But don’t worry: Until such time as I figure out why this happened, I will blame myself and not Thomas Keller.
Activate weaponized spinach! All systems go!
The only component left to cook was the fish, which would only take a minute or two, so I got everything else ready for plating: The sauce was holding in a small pan over the lo-power burner. I cranked the heat up slightly under the parsnips and stirred in a touch more cream and butter (as per instructions). I melted still more butter in a skillet and rolled my spinach balls around in it to heat them and crisp the outside, then put the whole pan in the oven to await the fish.
The three stages of black sea bass: love, anger, denial.
I’ve had bad luck substituting fish when I can’t find exactly what a recipe calls for; I don’t know enough about fish to make an educated choice, and the “fishmongers” at Whole Foods know about as much as me, or possibly slightly less. To give myself every possible chance at success, I called an actual fishmonger, verified that they had actual black sea bass, and took a lunchtime field trip to pick it up. They only had whole fish, so the monger filleted one for me, wrapping up the head and skeleton separately so I could save them for stock. Our office fridge already smells like a caravan of hobos died after enjoying a final meal at the Indian buffet, so I figured a couple hours of fish-head storage couldn’t hurt. (I think the fish head actually absorbed some of the foul odors.)
Aside: I wish there were more professions in which experts were referred to as “mongers,” because I think monger is a great word and is fun to say. Like, a librarian could be a “bookmonger” or a prostitute could be a “sexmonger.”
When it was time to cook the fish, I sliced it into 6 portions and dried the skin as much as I could to ensure crispiness; TK has a whole knife-as-fish-squeegee thing that he recommends, but I forgot all about it in the heat of the moment. I supposed I could have dusted it with a wee bit of flour, but that would have been outside the written instructions and therefore cheating.
I laid the bass into a hot pan skin-side down, pressing on it to ensure good skin-to-pan contact. After a few minutes I flipped it, cooked it for 30 seconds or so on the second side (as TK calls it, “kissing” the fish) and was good to go.
This was totally worth the butter shits.
Plating, as per TK’s instructions: Pool of sauce on the bottom. Dab of parsnip puree. Spinach ball nestled into the parsnip. Sea bass perched on top. My small round of creamy sauce was more like a wading pool due to its lack ot body (shaking fist at heavens) but it still looking pretty fucking good.
This was a fucking amazing dinner – so much better than the sum of its parts, and none of these photos can do it justice. The interplay of textures was phenomenal: crispy fish skin, tender fish, creamy parsnips, smooth sauce, and the little spinach bullets – possibly my favorite part – slightly crunchy on the outside and just hot on the inside. A fork with a bit of everything on it was like a little bite of heaven, the flavors went together so perfectly. And the sauce, oh, the sauce. It didn’t taste like mussels, it didn’t taste like wine, it didn’t taste like saffron or vanilla. It just was, a wonderful sweet-savory liquid that enhanced everything it touched.
Now, I know that you know what I mean about the butter shits. You, yes you, have had them: you had the Super Mega Quesadillas Grande at TGI Friday’s, and halfway between the restaurant and your house you’re thinking “Dear God, how long is this fucking red light going to last because I can’t clench much longer and these are my favorite jeans?” Because you had a fatty meal, and you’re about to have the butter shits.
Don’t try to tell me that this hasn’t happened to you, because you will be lying and I will know it. This meal? It will give you the butter shits; I mean, the sauce has a stick and a half of butter whisked into 2 tablespoons of liquid. But you won’t mind it at all, you will WELCOME them, because you will know that they came from this impossibly gorgeous, improbably delicious meal and not a Triple Cheese and Bean Gordita.
Final Score: Us, 1; Food, 1. It’s a win-win.