Chef's philosophy of fish: Cook until it's done just so

March 08, 2000|By Rob Kasper

When Seattle Chef Christine Keff cooks a piece of fish, it is rarely rare.

"I cook it all the way through, so it flakes," she said. "You want doneness, but not dryness."

There are a few exceptions. Salmon and tuna can be medium, she said, but not raw. Fish that is undercooked has the wrong texture, Keff said. In a word, it is "tough."

Chefs who serve fish with cold midsections may be "trying to make a point," Keff said, but they aren't doing much for their customers' taste buds.

Keff's opinions matter because she made her culinary reputation and garnered honors by cooking seafood. Her 5-year-old Seattle restaurant, Flying Fish, has, as she put it, "developed a niche by serving exotic fish" to a populace that knows its fins and fillets.

Last year, Keff was named best chef in the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii by the James Beard Society.

Last week, Keff brought her philosophy of fish, her chef de cuisine Steve Smrstik and a couple of boxes of seafood with her to the Great Chefs Dinner held at Linwoods/Due restaurant in Owings Mills. The dinner for 300 and auction raised $100,000 for the Family Tree, a nonprofit agency that fights child abuse.

I spoke with Keff before dinner and again after I enjoyed the repast.

The Thai sea scallop course offered a good example of Keff's approach to cooking. Keff told me she works hard at "sourcing." In the argot of chefs, this means she searches for suppliers who can provide fresh, high-quality ingredients.

The scallops served at dinner, for instance, came from the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. There, Keff said, she located a supplier who ships scallops that meet her standards.

First of all, the scallops have been out of the water only a few days. Nevertheless, whenever a shipment of scallops arrives in her kitchen, Keff or her assistant gives them the sniff test, making sure there is no telltale "fishy" odor, which would be a sign that they are past their prime. They passed.

Second, these scallops are fat, naturally. Some suppliers soak scallops in a chemical that enables the scallops to "fatten up" by absorbing large amounts of water, she said.

When such pumped-up scallops are cooked, they shrivel into less appealing body shapes. The Grand Banks scallops had been not soaked, Keff said. This assures her that they will remain pleasingly plump throughout the cooking process.

Sure enough, the scallop that arrived on my plate was a hunk. It was thick, yet moist, and cooked all the way through. The sweetness of the scallop teamed up with the zing of the curry sauce to produce a winning combination.

I also liked the mussels I found in the bottom of a bowl of mussel soup flavored with coconut and lemon grass. The mussels, Keff told me, also had been carefully "sourced." They hailed from a mussel farmer who cultivated the shellfish on ropes hung underwater in the coves of the Pacific Northwest.

These mussels, she said, also had been through an elaborate "debearding" procedure. This meant that, unlike bearded mussels, these mussels arrived in the kitchen looking presentable and did not have to be cleaned up before making an appearance in the dining room. They also had a delicate flavor.

I am a big fan of coconut, but, until I tasted this soup, would not have thought of pairing it with mussels. Yet, I am here to tell you, this marriage worked.

I was less enthusiastic about the "surf-'n-turf" course, matching seared foie gras, or goose liver, with sake-marinated ankimo, or monkfish liver. I am not a liver lover and had a problem with the texture of monkfish liver. It seemed, dare I say, a bit undercooked.

The mustard grilled squab was a knockout. Squab is not an everyday dish, at least not at my house. This course, though small in portion size, packed a big and dazzling mix of game and tart vinegar flavors.

By the time dessert -- espresso pot de creme -- appeared, I was wondering if I had room for any more food. One bite of the dish, basically a coffee cup filled with creamy coffee-flavored chocolate, quickly led to another. Before I knew it, I had licked my coffee cup clean and was chewing on a truffle. Not a bad way to finish a meal.

Keff said that before returning to Seattle she planned to spend a day poking around the Eastern Shore, eating. She said she was a big fan of bluefish and striped bass, two East Coast fish she became familiar with in New York, where she cooked in several restaurants, including the Four Seasons, before moving to Seattle.

When our conversation turned to soft crabs, Keff's eyes widened, as she described her favorite way to cook the Chesapeake Bay crustaceans. She cuts the soft crabs in half, marinates them in a fish sauce and chilies, then deep-fries them in soybean oil and serves them as a sandwich.

I tried to get a few tips from Keff on how to tell when a piece of fish is done. Basically, she told me, the key is experience.

The opaque "done" color should run through the piece of fish, she said. But she added that because the fish will continue to cook after you remove iit from the heat, you have to learn to take the fish off just before it looks done.

However, when cooking salmon, there is, she said, one telltale sign of disaster. If white bubbles appear on the skin of the salmon, "It's over," she said.

The bubbles are a sign that rather than cooking a piece of salmon correctly, to the point of doneness not dryness, you have, instead, produced a large portion of overcooked cat food.

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