The first recipe I chose to make was Michael Midgley's Trout and Salmon with Lemon-Thyme Cream Sauce and Basil Oil, from Season 2, Episode 9 - it was an Elimination Challenge where the remaining seven contestants were asked to make a 7-course meal inspired by the seven deadly sins - Michael's "sin" was "ENVY."
(Note that I made the recipe for 5 people, so I increased all quantities by 25%.)
Choosing your fish:
Michael's thought process behind the dish, as I recall, was to serve two kinds of seafood - one sophisticated, the other less "refined" - and the less refined fish would be "envious" of the sophisticated one. I believe that originally, Michael wanted to use lobster as his "privileged" seafood. Unfortunately, when he went to the market, there was no lobster to be found, so he switched up the plan, and chose salmon to be the "upscale" fish, and trout to be its ugly stepsister. Well, in the spirit of last-minute change-ups, when I went to market for my fish, I couldn't find any trout. Seriously! It's not like trout is such a rare fish.
Nonetheless, not to be deterred, I chose catfish. As you may recall, even in Cinderella, there were two stepsisters. So I chose stepsister #2, and if you've ever seen a catfish, trust me - this one is the uglier of the two stepsisters! (I actually think trout is a quite a beauty myself.) I had also considered using tilapia, but decided against it. Trout is a slightly bony and distinctive tasting fish, as is catfish. Tilapia, on the other hand, is a flaky and very mild-tasting fish. Also, although found all over the world, catfish is viewed as a quintessential "American" fish, as is trout, whereas tilapia has more Asian connotations. Anyway, to make the difference between the salmon and the catfish all the more distinct, the salmon I purchased was Wild Alaskan King salmon at $39.99/lb. The catfish was just $9.99/lb. Enough said.
(Note: I did all my shopping for this dish at Eli's in Manhattan to be assured the highest-quality fish and produce. So, I knew that notwithstanding the price, the "wild" salmon was indeed "wild" and not farmed.)
Making the Sauce
I chose to make the sauces first, because timing this dish correctly is of ultimate importance. All the vegetables and the fish are essentially made "a la minute" (French for "at the last minute"). You don't really want to make any of the vegetables or fish ahead of time and then reheat them when it's time to plate because the fresh taste and texture of the vegetables will be severely diminished and the fish will likely end up overcooked. However, the sauces can be made first. The basil oil only needs to be used at room temperature, and the cream sauce can be reheated when it comes time to plate.
The Basil Oil:
The first thing I did in the preparation was make the basil oil. I chose the freshest greenest basil I could find, and washed and dried them thoroughly.
I placed the basil in the Cuisinart mini-prep food processor and added a high-quality Italian extra-virgin olive oil. It should be noted that if you check out the BravoTV.com website for Top Chef, Lee Anne Wong (Season 1, and now a culinary producer for Top Chef and host of the web series "The Wong Way to Cook") suggests that you blanch and pat dry the basil before pureeing it with oil (a step that is not mentioned in the recipe in the cookbook). In retrospect, I think that blanching would have been the better approach. Blanching is putting the vegetable in boiling water just for just a minute or so. Blanching is sometimes used to loosen the skin on vegetables to make it easier to peel them. In this case, the blanching would have simply softened up the basil leaves a little, making it easier for them to be pulverized and release their natural oils.
I pureed the basil and oil thoroughly, scraping down the sides of the food processor a couple of times. There is nothing like the smell of fresh basil. It's so bright and smells like summer to me.
I then poured the pureed basil oil mixture through a fine mesh sieve and forced the oil through by scraping the oil mixture against the sieve with the back of a spoon. This took some time and was necessary to get all the basil oil. Again, I think if I had blanched the basil first, the basil oil would likely have taken less time to pass through the sieve and would have had a more intense green color and basil scent and flavor.
I discarded the basil oil solids and then placed the basil oil in a jar and put it in the refrigerator for later.
The Lemon-Thyme Cream Sauce
As the recipe directed, I first melted the butter. I used a one-quart saucier pan, because the sloped sides make it so easy to stir and evenly incorporate all the ingredients in a sauce.
I added the cream and thyme sprigs. I added a bit more thyme than the recipe called for and left them in the heated cream longer than the recipe called for as well, because I found this was necessary to truly infuse the sauce with the flavor of the thyme.
I tasted the sauce every minute or so, and after the cream sufficiently tasted of thyme, I removed the sprigs from the sauce. Then I cut a beautiful lemon in half. Now my kitchen smelled of basil, thyme and fresh lemon. The bright fresh scents in my kitchen were quite intoxicating.
I added the lemon juice - again, a little more than the recipe suggested. What the recipe called for was in my view not quite enough for the clean lemony flavor to shine through and for the acidity of the lemon to cut through the heaviness of the cream.
I whisked the sauce but noticed that no matter how much I whisked, a bit too much butter continued floating at the top. I skimmed some of this extra butter off by dabbing with a paper towel. I then added white pepper (so as not to see the bits of black pepper in the sauce) and salt to taste. I put the completed cream sauce in a container and placed that in the refrigerator as well for later.
Roasting the Plum Tomatoes:
I quartered the plum tomatoes, and then placed the wedges, basil leaves, olive oil, salt and pepper in a small roasting pan. I made sure to place the basil so that it was touching the tomatoes as much as possible so the tomatoes would absorb maximum basil flavor. (The basil is discarded after the tomatoes are roasted.)
Roasting the tomatoes took about the time needed to complete the rest of the dish. I took the tomatoes out of the oven just about 2 minutes before the fish was cooked through (which I discuss just a wee bit later).
The catfish fillet wasn't as perfect-looking as the salmon, and it also wasn't conducive to cutting into five "pretty" segments. In light of this, I actually attempted to cut the catfish into circles, but I had no metal cookie cutter, so I used a water glass as a "template" and tried to cut circles (that came out more like hexagons) with a sharp knife. I then placed the catfish circles into the skillet with the salmon, adding just about a tablespoon more olive oil. Cooking the salmon and catfish so that both fishes are ready (perfectly cooked through, but not overcooked) at the same time takes careful monitoring.
The Mushroom Medley:
Before putting the salmon and catfish in the skillet, I sliced up all the mushrooms. While the fish was cooking, I sautéed the mushrooms with some butter in a separate skillet. (The recipe called for portobello, shitake and button mushrooms. For the "button" mushrooms, I found white buttons and cremini mushrooms at the market, and I chose cremini since I felt they would have better flavor.) I have to admit, when I had finished slicing up all the mushrooms, and they were still raw, I couldn't believe the enormous mound of mushrooms I had before. I thought, "Wow, there must be a typo in the recipe, or maybe I chose gargantuan mushrooms at the market!" But after the mushrooms had been cooked down, they had considerably reduced in volume. It's amazing how much water raw mushrooms hold that evaporates when sautéed.
The fish was ready just a couple of minutes before the mushrooms, so I tented the fish with aluminum foil and put it in the still-warm oven to stay hot (this is one of the reasons it's important to use oven-safe pans). After the mushrooms were done, I was essentially ready to plate.
Last-Minute Steps Before Plating:
I heated the cream sauce in the microwave for about 30 seconds on medium-high (just until barely steaming - too much time in the microwave will mess with the dairy proteins and potentially coagulate the sauce), gave it a quick whisk and then poured the sauce into a thick plastic zip-lock bag. I had taken the basil oil out of the refrigerator around when the asparagus was done to get it back to around room temperature.
Assembling The Dish:
Plating this dish is one of the most important steps in this whole process and it's complicated! First, I drizzled the cream sauce onto the plates from the zip-lock bag. Then I topped the sauce with 1/5 of the mushrooms. Knowing the mushrooms were still hot and that the asparagus was not, I placed the asparagus segments up against the mushrooms. Then I put the roasted tomatoes on the plate. After that I topped the vegetables with a piece of catfish and a piece of salmon. Finally, I drizzled the basil oil on top of the fish with a spoon, and sprinkled a bit of fine sea salt over the whole dish. As you can see, the finished product was gorgeous - almost too pretty to eat!
And eat it, we did. It was fabulous. I don't know what it would have tasted like with trout, but it was great with the catfish. I served the dish with basmati rice lightly dressed with butter, which really worked well. The servings were a bit on the small size, but I believe this is because the dish was created to be part of a 7-course meal.
My Suggestions To Make This Already-Great Dish Even Better:
Other than the few alterations I wrote about throughout the dish's preparation, I only have a few more changes I would suggest:
First, as you can see from the finished product, I would add more plum tomatoes to the recipe. As written, it only calls for two roasted tomato wedges per serving. I felt three would be better.
Second, the recipe also only calls for one asparagus spear (three small segments) per serving. Huh? They are like an afterthought. If I prepared this dish again, I'd increase them to two spears (six segments) each, and cook them a little less, remove them from the boiling water where they will continue to cook a bit - I think doing this will make it more likely that the asparagus will be hot (or at least warm) when plating, and I don't believe there will be much risk that the bright green color will be lost, even without "shocking" them in a cold bath.
Finally, I think the cream sauce would have been better if it had a little more body to it. I think if I made this dish again, I would have started the sauce by making a "roux" with the butter by adding about a teaspoon or so or flour and cooking that down just enough to cook out the flour taste, but not letting it take on any color before adding the cream (this is known as a "blonde roux").
Final Word On this Dish:
The richness and subtlety of the mushrooms and the lemon-thyme cream sauce are what really make this dish. Just be sure it has enough salt. The salt brings out all the delicate flavors. Under-salted, the dish doesn't live up to its potential. Properly seasoned, it sings.
Haven't had enough? Need more Mikey??? How could you not? Well, to pay a little homage to Michael, I actually also made as a special treat to start the meal his famous (perhaps infamous) amuse-bouche (by the way, "bouche" is the French word for "mouth," so it literally means to amuse the mouth), a little pre-appetizer morsel often served with an "aperitif" such as champagne, sweet vermouth, pastis, or a Campari-based cocktail.
The History of the Michael's Chocolate & Cheeto Amuse-Bouche:
During one of the Quickfire challenges (Episode 4) of Season 2, the contestants were asked to create an amuse-bouche created from ingredients purchased from a vending machine. As I recall, poor Michael was either the last or one of the last contestants to get a shot at the vending machine. Let's just say there wasn't much left to chose from at that time. And so, Michael, whose sense of humor I personally truly appreciate, decided to punt. And he thought to himself, "Hmmmm.... What would make my mouth happy (that I could make out of the remaining crap in that vending machine)?"
And voila! The Cheeto & Chocolate amuse-bouche!
Now poor Michael took a LOT of flak for this concoction. He was accused of not taking the competition seriously. He was also accused of having a warped mind... Well, let me just make two quick comments. (1) The chocolate-covered pretzel - need I say more? (2) I told some of my friends at a subsequent dinner how I made Michael's Cheeto & Chocolate amuse-bouche and even showed them the photos of the completed product (see below), and they were psyched - they wanted to know if I had any left. They thought they sounded awesome and yummy (and no - these friends of mine were not all women experiencing PMS).
On the other hand, when I told my best friend from college about this amuse-bouche - well... She was not amused (pun intended). To test her theory that the little morsel sounded completely unappetizing, she decided to ask the ultimate arbiter of all things "junk food" - her 6-year-old daughter (who also happens to be my god-daughter). Here's how it went:
Mom: Honey, what do you think of the idea of Mommy making an appetizer of chocolate and Cheetos?
6-year-old :Ummmmm... (long pause). I like chocolate... (Another long pause) ...and I like Cheetos. (Yet another long pause accompanied by thoughtful scrunched-up facial expressions demonstrating deep thought.) But together? No, Mommy, I think that sounds disgusting.
(Oh well - sorry Michael. The 6-year old has spoken.) But for the adventurous and curious out there - here it is anyway!
The preparation of the Cheeto & Chocolate amuse-bouche:
First, purchase a bag of fresh crunchy Cheetos (not the baked kind - get the fried variety). Second, purchase chocolate that can easily be shaped into balls - I made it easy for myself and bought the Ferrero Rocher chocolates. Next, choose blemish-free, unbroken Cheetos. Then, make a small hole in each of the chocolates. I used a chopstick to achieve this. It is delicate work.
See completed amuse-bouche below.
For an elegant presentation, arrange several of the amuse-bouche (apparently even the plural form has no "s" at the end) on a lovely plate and serve with the aperitif of your choice. In my case, I chose a great new cocktail of prosecco with a splash of St. Germain Elderflower liqueur.