The secret of chef's success is at his fingertips

March 16, 1997|By Rob Kasper

WHEN A CHEF GIVES a simple dish remarkable flavor, there are a few things I want to know. Namely, how did he do that, and can I do the same thing at home?

Recently I found myself grilling two different chefs about two different dishes. First I ate some braised sea bass with dried tomatoes, whipped up by chef Roberto Donna at the Great Chefs' Dinner, a benefit for the Child Abuse Prevention Center of Maryland held at Linwood's restaurant. Donna, who owns Galileo restaurant in Washington, was joined in the kitchen by his friend, Francesco Ricchi, chef of Bice restaurant in Washington.

A few nights later, I spooned down some chicken and roasted-corn soup served by Bill Aydlett, chef at Sisson's, the South Baltimore restaurant and brewpub that presented dinners at which Maryland-made beers were matched with Maryland fare.

After feasting on Filetto Di Branzino Saltato Con Pomodorini Secchi, I called up Donna and asked him to tell me his sea-bass tricks. It quickly became apparent to me that one reason his sea bass tastes like something from heaven and mine tastes like something from the bottom of the ocean is that Donna has talented fingers. He said he uses these fingers to tell when a piece of fish is done.

"I touch the fish," he said. "If it feels like it is just about to flake apart, then I know it is ready. I don't use a thermometer. I don't know how."

A native of Torino, Italy, Donna opened his Washington restaurant in 1984 and has won a series of plaudits, including being named in 1996 by the James Beard Foundation as the best chef in America's mid-Atlantic region.

Donna suggested steps I could take to immediately improve my sea-bass cookery. One was that instead of letting the fillet swim in a marinade, I should massage the fillet with the marinade. If the fish is allowed to lounge in the marinade, he said, the ingredients -- fresh tarragon, thyme, rosemary, black pepper and olive oil -- can overpower the sea bass. A better idea, he added, is to massage the sea bass with the marinade, using just enough liquid to cover the fish.

Give it a tan

The chef told me about two cooking techniques he uses on sea bass. First, he gives the fish a tan, or, as he put it, "a little color." He does this by cooking the fish very quickly, about 20 seconds per side, in a hot, nonstick saute pan.

After the fish has its color, he finishes it in the oven, making sure the fish doesn't sit on the bottom of the pan. He puts a rack -- a simple cake rack will do, he said -- in the bottom of the roasting pan. This keeps the fish above the fray -- and the runoff juices, which sink to the bottom of the pan. Sitting on the bottom, he said, can destroy the delicate flavors of the fish.

He cooks the fish in this elevated position in a 400-degree oven for "four to five minutes, until it feels right."

A few nights later, I found myself trying to pry more secrets out of Aydlett at Sisson's. This time I wanted to know how he got the chicken and roasted-corn soup so corny. This was an odd question. Most of the technical talk at the dinner centered on brewing, not cooking. This was the second of two dinners featuring beers made in Maryland. So many craft brewers are in the state that accommodating all of them required holding two separate dinners, a week apart. At both occasions, brewers brought their beers to the five-course dinner and told tales.

For example, Howie Faircloth of Globe Brewing Co. told how a "certified yeast carrier" had ferried Ashvine yeasts over from England to start the new brewery on Baltimore's Key Highway that opened this month. Alan Young of Fordham Brewing Co. told how his Annapolis brew house got its yeasts from Germany: Most of the time, the yeasts arrive without incident, he said. But one yeast shipment blew up inside the Porsche that was carrying it from the airport. Chris Minnick of Wild Goose Brewing in Cambridge talked about the chocolate malts used in Snow Goose. John Pinkerton of Frederick Brewing Co. described the big, malty flavors of the brewery's winter beer, Snow Ball's Chance, and he took quite a bit of ribbing from his fellow brewers about the bright yellow color of the brewery's latest building. He denied rumors that on clear days the big yellow brewery in Frederick can be seen from West Virginia.

Volunteer workers

Brimstone Brewing's Mark Tewey brought a bold Irish Wake Stout to the dinner. Tewey, whose East Baltimore brewery sits on the site of an old National Premium brewery, said he had been getting a lot of volunteer help from retired National workers, who miss making beer.

Sisson's Jack Callanan said his Gunga Din India Pale Ale had been criticized because it wasn't as "floral" or "hoppy" as some other American-made versions of the beer. But he said he was sticking with his version of the brew, which he said is modeled after the India pale ales made in England.

During a lull in the beer talk, I pulled Aydlett aside for some roasted-corn soup talk. First, be sure to use good chicken stock and fresh cream, he said. You get the corny flavor, he said, by adding kernels of corn that have been roasted in the oven. You cut the kernels off the cob, place them on a baking sheet near the top of the oven, and roast them until they are done, he said.

I'm still not sure how to tell when the kernels are cooked. The chef said they are done when they are dried out. I don't know if I can recognize the dried-out look in corn kernels. I may have to resort to another method for checking doneness. I may have to pinch them with my soon-to-be-trained fingers.

Pub Date: 3/16/97

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