Scaling up. Feeling down

Red mullet with crispy potato scales in a saffron and vermouth sauce with a broccoli flan

It was a late kitchen session on Friday night to serve Filet de Rouget en Écailles de Pommes de Terre Croustillantes. What a mouthful. Fillet of red mullet with crispy potato scales. There! And I didn’t even gasp for breath mid sentence. This recipe is based on a famous Paul Bocuse dish.

It was an important session because it’s the first time we’ve cooked red mullet. So? Well, for the superior exam we have 4 hours in the kitchen to serve 2 courses and 4 portions. One of the dishes is mandated by the school. I know 2 things at this point. It’s saddle of rabbit with a stuffed courgette flower. And it’s a bitch. The second dish is a free interpretation—basically I get to invent my own dish using a minimum of 18 ingredients from a list of 27. And it’s fish. Yip, red mullet is the main element. 3 terms at Le Cordon Bleu and 3 fish exam dishes. Am I the unluckiest meat eater alive or what?

I filleted the fish with Zorro-like swordsmanship. Boy was I chuffed. In all honesty it’s an easy fish to fillet with one swoosh of the knife. Apparently it’s a notoriously difficult fish to get a crispy skin on. Not impossible I suspect but damn tricky to cook well and achieve that crispy skin. The skin is very thin because it sits beneath armour-plated scales. They’re huge but actually also quite easy to remove. The body cavity is compact and it’s possible to pull the guts out with the gills rather than remove them via the belly. I’ve not yet managed to pull this off. I’ll keep trying.

With the fish prepared in record time I moved onto the potato. Having removed all the scales from the fish it was now time to stick potato scales back on. This was fun—one of those high-concentration therapeutic activities. Little potato disks were cut and coated with clarified butter and potato starch while the fish skin was brushed with egg yolk. Working from tail to head and belly to back the little spuds scales were overlapped. Awesome. A work of art. Into the fridge to set.

A beautiful vivid yellow sauce was made with mushrooms, shallot, saffron and Noilly Prat vermouth. I’m not a vermouth fan, to drink at least, but this tipple is mighty fine to cook with! Fish stock was added and the liquid reduced before being passed and further reduced to a syrup. The sauce was finished with a load of butter, a squeeze of lemon juice and a sprinkling of brown prawns.

It all went wrong from here. Oh so wrong. I just didn’t know it until a wee bit later. Broccoli flan. My downfall. Broccoli florets were cooked in water until very soft. These were blitzed in the blender, and while whizzing away, warm cream was added along with an egg, an egg yolk and nutmeg. The mixture was passed through a chinois with some elbow grease and a maryse or pastry spatula. Then into a dariole mould lined with butter and a cartouche on the bottom, and into a Bain Marie and the oven.

In theory the flan should cook like a cake, or a flan, in 10-20 minutes depending on the oven. Except mine didn’t. At 20 minutes I decided to sacrifice my first flan. I turned it out because I needed to know. Tick tock tick tock. Fail. A very tasty green gloop on top of my yellow board. Pretty colours. Ok it’s all on the second flan now. Time to cook the fish.

The mullet was cooked potato-side down, on baking parchment, in cast iron pan with clarified butter. With a gentle heat it took a good 10 minutes to first crisp the potato scales before the fish itself started to cook. Chef said it was important to look out for a white bloom developing around the edge of the fillet. This indicated the fish was starting to cook. Once that bloom moved up a natural line running along the length of the fillet, about a centimetre in from the edge, it was time to quickly baste the middle and take it off the heat. I was really happy with my scales and their golden colour. And the fish looked nicely cooked. Alas. Another 20 minutes later my second flan was still in the oven after numerous hopeful then increasingly desperate checks. And my oven was cranked up to 250C. Cook you mutha*****. Pardonnez moi.

I was out of time. My sauce had split because it had sat for too long. So I had to rescue that by whisking it slowly into a little cold water. And my fish was now overcooked because it had rested too long. Do or die. I turned out the second flan. Well. It wasn’t gloop. Actually it looked pretty good, at last. But then it sagged in the middle. Chef said that meant it was probably still liquid inside. Turned out it wasn’t liquid but the texture was moist shall we say. At least the broccoli couscous worked.

Late on Friday. Hot kitchen. A simple dish that should’ve been done in 90 minutes. A less than glorious Beef Wellington earlier in the day. The only thing more deflated than me was that damned broccoli flan. One of those weeks to forget.

So what went wrong with the flan? I’m guessing at this point. Maybe I didn’t blitz for long enough. Maybe I didn’t get enough pulp through the chinois. Maybe I should’ve cleaned the blender so I wasn’t building my purée on the remnants of other people’s purées. I can say this—dariole moulds are on the shopping list. I will not be defeated by a flan.

Here are the red mullet dished plated by chef in demo.

Chef’s red mullet with crispy potato scales and an assortment of broccoli garniture

Chef’s approximation of the famous Paul Bocuse dish, made with a brown fish sauce

Also in demo, chef prepared Barre d’Ananas Caramélisé, Mousse Coco au Chocolat Blanc, Sorbet Mangue et Grenade. A bar of caramelised pineapple, coconut and white chocolate mousse with mango sorbet and pomegranate.

With many elements to this dish, and many steps to each element, along with all the embellishments chef had showed us for the red mullet dish, I finally lost the plot. I could no longer observe, and follow, and make meaningful notes. At the sorbet I stopped taking notes. A hydrometer got involved because it was apparently critical that the sugar content of the fruit be measured before determining how much additional sugar to add. Get that wrong and you get sorbet fail. Huh? The last thing I wrote on the recipe sheet was a half-page question mark. The clincher though was the use of a Pacojet machine, which costs £3600. This isn’t a recipe I’ll be doing at home. Though I know I’ll want to make sorbet at some point. I’m sure there are alternative ways.

BTW the mango sorbet was good. Like really good!

Caramelised pineapple with coconut and white chocolate mousse, mango sorbet, and pomegranate