Saturday, January 24, 2009

High Heat is Not My Friend: Advice from the Pros on How to Cook Your Bass

So many Top Chefs call New York home, Tom Colicchio might as well be mayor. And yet, after two trips to the City and a decent amount of Top Chef stalking, Marcy and I hadn’t met any of them. My mom has no ambitions of befriending the rising stars of the culinary world, and even she randomly walked right past season 4 Andrew outside his private dining club. Jealousy gave way to discouragement. We threw down the autograph pads and concentrated on our plan to cook sea bass that night.

We got off to a good start when we walked over to Chelsea Market for the fish. Occupying an entire city block in the meat-packing district, the Market dates back to 1898, when the original Nabisco Bakery produced the first Oreo cookie. Today, the Market consists of the Food Network, restaurants, and 12 specialty food shops, including the Lobster Place, the largest purveyor of live lobster in the City. When we walked in, the smell of fish was so sweet that my dad said he’d like to engineer an open-air vent from the market to his living room. We put that project on hold, settling for a fillet of Chilean sea bass caught just three hours before, like all of the store’s fish.

Following a recipe from Colicchio’s book, Think Like a Chef, we needed a few other ingredients, and we headed to a small grocery across from the fish market. Then it happened – an angel appeared. A squat spiky-haired Indonesian angel. It was season 4 Dale. Marcy walked right past him, even though he was wearing his trademark taupe-rimmed glasses (not to mention a Buddakan chef jacket with his name on the breast). Amazingly, despite being focused on the bass, my Dale-dar was still working.

I will concede that Buddakan is located inside the Chelsea Market, so it only makes sense that the sous chef would be shopping for ingredients there. But after many frustrating attempts to meet Top Chef contestants, randomly seeing Dale felt as miraculous as Forrest Gump meeting JFK at the White House. Instead of telling Dale “I gotta pee,” though, we used the opportunity to get some advice about our sea bass. The recipe called for us to stuff the fish with roasted tomatoes, using a string to tie them in between two fillets – the idea being to infuse the tomato flavor into the fish. Given our inexperience with hog-tying fish, and my parents’ high expectations, we seemed to be courting disaster.

At first, Dale seemed a little reticent about string theory. Dale's most memorable moment from the show came after an argument with a fellow contestant, when he declared, “I try not to be a dickhead in the kitchen.” Considering Dale's aloof attitude towards us, though, it seemed that he was more open to being a dickhead in the supermarket.

But our charm won him over. We resisted the temptation to make any annoying “pack your knives” jokes, and after we told him about our dinner at Buddakan, he flashed a rare smile, leading to a quick tutorial on the bass. The gist of his advice was to give the fish high heat, or in his words, “blast it.” I realized that this approach contradicts Colicchio’s instruction in the book, highlighted in no less than 24-point font, “high heat is not your friend.” When you treat the ingredients gently, Colicchio explains, you get the best results in terms of flavor and texture. Dale was ladled off Top Chef for making bad butterscotch scallops. Maybe he blasted the scallops, too.

Ultimately, our excitement over meeting Dale didn’t stop us from ignoring his advice. I like Dale, but he is only a B-list cheflebrity, afterall. On the other hand, when Tom Colicchio says low sizzle, you low sizzle. So, even as my dad wafted about the kitchen, hungrily suggesting that the fish looked done, I kept adjusting the heat to make sure that the sugars in the food didn’t caramelize too quickly.

Maybe too proud of our fish tying, we forgot to cut the string before serving, but other than that, my parents gave the bass high marks. Despite the fairly complicated technique necessary to tie the bundle, the taste was winning for its simplicity – fresh fish and roasted tomato over a basic sauce of tomato juice, garlic and butter.

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