"So, the menu for Sidney's birthday dinner. I have the appetizer figured out, and Mandy's doing dessert, so for the entrée, I was thinking fish, maybe poached in court-bouillon with a simple hollandaise sauce, or we could do something pan-fried... what do you say?"
I'm not saying anything. Bill's words aren't quite penetrating the fog in my head. "Query: court-bouillon" is getting me "error: access denied" from my memory banks, and I am feeling pretty fried myself.
No, I'm not hungover. I just have the sinus infection from hell.
Perhaps the wisest course of action would be to stay right where I am, curled up on Matt and Nathaniel's futon, drinking tea by the gallon and wallowing in my achy, sniffly misery. But I'd be giving up both the chance to cook with Bill, and Sidney's birthday celebration.
Sidney is Matt and Bill's sister. She is brash and vivacious and tremendously fun. (I kind of want to be like Sidney when I grow up.) Like the rest of Matt's family clan, she loves good food, and Bill has brought me on to help pull out all the stops.
"Poached fish sounds fantastic," I finally mumble. "Let's keep this simple."
Several hours later, Bill swings by en route from grocery shopping, and picks us up. After another gallon of tea, I am in slightly better shape, and the conversation picks up where it left off.
It turns out that the freshest fish Bill could find was whole red snapper. The tea must have put my memory banks back online, because "query: whole red snapper" immediately spits out the response "bake in salt crust."
Bill likes the idea. Matt is intrigued. We're scheduled for a stop at the liquor store, and while Bill and Matt lay in a stock of wine for the evening's festivities, I swing by the supermarket next door for several pounds of coarse salt.
Once we have our supplies, we proceed to Mandy and Eric's (more relatives of Matt and Bill), where the celebration is being held. Bill and I get ourselves set up in the kitchen, and someone breaks out the champagne. The mood in the kitchen is busy but cheerful, as Bill bustles about preparing scallop mousse and vegetables, and I pretend to know what I'm doing with the whole red snapper in salt crust.
No, I haven't done this before. I've just read about it.
Well, here we go. Rinse off the three fish. Dry off the fish. Stuff the fish with tarragon and a few lemon wedges. Mix the salt with a little water. Spread shallow layers of salt on three baking trays, which aren't quite big enough for the fish, but it's okay, because it's just the tails that are sticking out. Put the fish on the baking trays. Cover them with more salt. It's like being at the beach and burying your siblings in the sand.
The fish are all covered, and ready for the oven. I am going to get another glass of champagne, and wait for the scallop mousse to finish cooking.
Once the mousse comes out of the oven, we crank up the temperature, and in goes in the snapper. One hour until the moment of truth.
We sit down at the table and tuck in to scallop mousse, Scottish smoked salmon, salmon roe, and Boucheron goat's cheese, plus a lot of fresh crusty bread. And more champagne.
(Sorry, no photos of the mousse. We ate it all before anyone remembered to take photos.)
The scallop mousse is lovely, creamy and delicate with a cayenne pepper kick. I make a mental note to get the recipe from Bill later. It contrasts interestingly with the Boucheron, which is creamy and mellow and plays nicely against the smooth oiliness of the salmon.
We move from champagne to white wine, and I head back in to the kitchen. The hour is up. Time to see if the fish was a success. If not, we'll be eating omelettes for a second course.
When I open the oven door, I am greeted by a blast of tarragon-perfumed air. Okay, good smell is a good sign. We remove the three trays of fish, and set about trying to break the salt crust. Bill rapidly figures out the most efficient method, and we fillet the fish, set it on a platter, and send it out with hollandaise sauce, blanched asparagus, and fingerling potatoes.
The verdict? The fish is a success, tender and moist. I can breathe easily.
And thanks to all the champagne, I am breathing more easily, too.
Whole Red Snapper Baked in Salt Crust
The salt crust seals in all the juices, producing moist, succulent fish.
(A two-pound snapper will serve three or four people.)
Preheat oven to 450F.
Dump two pounds of kosher or rock salt (cooking grade - do not get the stuff you sprinkle on the sidewalk) in a bowl, and add about a cup of water, enough for it to become slightly damp. Mix it up with your hands. Lay half the salt in a baking tray.
Give your snapper a quick rinse inside and out, and pat dry with paper towels. Stuff the cavity with a few sprigs of fresh tarragon and a lemon wedge or two.
Put the snapper on the bed of salt, and cover it gently with the other half. It's a little like building sandcastles. Pat, don't pack.
When you're done satisfying your inner child, put the snapper in the oven and leave it there for forty to forty-five minutes. You can use the time to boil some new potatoes, blanch some asparagus or green beans, and whip up a nice hollandaise or beurre blanc.
When your forty minutes are up, remove the snapper from the oven. Take a paring knife and break through the salt crust along one edge. Wedge it in, then push up. If all goes well, the crust will come off in one large piece, taking most of the skin with it. Discard the crust.
As for filleting the fish... well, my explanation amounts to "Take off the top half. Pull out the backbone. Take out the bottom half. Serve." So for everyone's sake, I'm going to point you to the excellent step-by-step guide at Beyond Salmon instead.
Once the fish has been filleted, lay it on a platter. Serve with sauce, potatoes, and asparagus or green beans. Bon appétit.