Learning to cook

No, this isn’t a post about my formative cooking experiences, or how I knew that cooking was an avocation upon the first taste of something or other. Rather, it’s a post about the first cooking class I’ve ever taken. Helen Rennie has a blog called Beyond Salmon, and runs Helen’s Kitchen, a series of cooking classes held, that’s right, in her home kitchen.

I first “met” Helen years ago on Chowhound.com, long before the lamented-by-me site re-design made the boards unusable, flooded with Noobs who couldn’t do a Google search if their helper monkey typed it for them. Back then, she and I both posted on the New England, Boston, and Home Cooking boards, and I knew she had a food blog, too. Reading her board posts, I knew she was a woman after my own heart, in love with cooking, eating, and feeding the people she loved. Her recipes, responses to “What’s for Dinner?” posts, menu suggestions, and restaurant reviews paralleled my ideas about what was good cooking—fresh ingredients, properly prepared, with comparatively few ingredients and techniques, in order to let the food shine through—basically, la cuisine bourgeoisie, good home cooking with a bit of effort. We ate at the same restaurants, shopped at the same stores, liked the same combinations of food.

My essential shyness limited me to doing nothing more than commenting on her blog, following her posts, and holding a silent but deep admiration for her decision to make her avocation into a career. Since I’ve started blogging, I’ve always had Beyond Salmon on my blogroll, and I’ve discovered the joys of more than one new cooking technique from reading her site.

In the meantime, I’ve been posting here, pretty simple stuff, but that’s what people like to eat most of the time. And I’ve been mulling, mulling, mulling over taking a cooking class, and improving some of my skills. I’m entirely home-taught—I learned by cooking with my parents, and by cooking on my own and with my husband. I read most of the food magazines, was an avid PBS and FoodTV watcher when I had a TV, and I try to stay on top of what’s what in the food world, but I’ve never taken an actual class. The basics-types classes are not what I need- I know how to cook an egg, cut up a chicken, poach a pear. I do need to improve areas where I’m competent, but could be better—knife skills, bread and pastry baking. And there are some areas in which I am completely ignorant—which brings me (you’re still reading? Thank you!) to Helen’s One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish class. (scroll down for description).

My exposure to fish, growing up, consisted of exactly three things: 1) fish sticks and tater tots, prepared by my Irish-American grandmother on Friday nights, 2) fried seafood at Kelly’s in Revere, and 3) boiled lobster, prepared by my mother for birthdays and Christmas Eve. We simply didn’t cook fish as a regular course—Dad, because they were a meat and potatoes Irish family, and Mom, because she grew up in the Midwest, and had no fish background.

Since then, I’ve cultivated a growing fondness for certain things—lobsters, mussels (Atlantic only, please), scallops, fresh tuna, and fresh salmon. But the rest of the fish world was beyond me. White fish? Ugh, tastes like rubbery nothing. Swordfish? Tough and stinky. I’ve heretofore limited my home cooking of fish to salmon roasted in onions and butter, or the occasional wild poached salmon, in either Soy Vey Teriyaki sauce, or miso paste and lemon juice. I will order bluefish or skate when we go to Ten Tables, my favorite restaurant in my end of town, and one of the best restaurants in Boston, hands down. I will order Jasper White’s pan-roasted lobster when we go to The Summer Shack. And I’ll order mussels marinara at Bertucci’s, nearly every time. (OK, yes, Bertucci’s is a chain. But it’s the only one we eat at!) But cooking fish at home? Not so much.

For my birthday this year, I decided to remedy this shocking gap in my culinary skills, and sign up for a class. I’d initially signed up for Helen’s knife skills class, but owing to some vagary of my email or just a plain old lapse on my part, I forgot to pay. (Oops.) So I signed up for the fish class, which was the other one on my list.

Classes take place in Helen’s small but amazingly counter-full home kitchen. (And she has marble counters. So jealous.) The eight of us taking the class first sat down in the dining room to talk about finding a good fishmonger, and what to look for in a good (or bad) fish market. To hear an expert say that we needn’t commit to memory each fish that might be a good substitute should the one we want be out of season was an enormous relief. For an expert to admit that she learns something new every time she goes to the market was an inspiration. Helen then talked about the different types of cooking methods, and about the four factors inherent in fish (fattiness, texture, thickness, and flavor) that affect what cooking method you should choose.

Classroom component over, we spent some time just looking at the fish. Helen had bluefish, salmon, halibut, striped bass, and swordfish. We talked about each of the four factors in relation to each of the fishes on offer, and passed the plates of fish around to look at (and smell) more closely. Here was my first lesson—fish are oddly shaped, and somehow I’d been cherishing the illusion that “good” fish filets/cuts are evenly shaped. They’re not. You’re often (unless you’re eating a steak) going to have thinner and thicker bits, and uneven edges where the bones have been removed. Knowing that the shape of the fish is out of my control was a relief, because it’s one less thing to worry about.

After learning what good fish looked like, we got to work. I don’t want to re-create Helen’s whole site or re-type all the recipes we cooked, but suffice it to say, we tried all the major methods for cooking fish—roasted salmon teriyaki, pan-seared striped bass with orange gremolata, broiled swordfish provencal, roasted bluefish on a bed of crispy potatoes, (Note: Helen used lime juice and cilantro in place of the lemon and parsley listed in the recipe link. It was amazing.), and poached halibut in a sorrel cream sauce. (This recipe isn’t available online and I don’t want to post Helen’s recipe from the class materials without permission, but this recipe is basically the same, omitting the cilantro, subbing in a good handful of sorrel, finely chopped into a chiffonade, and omitting the orange.) We spent a ton of time taking the fish in and out of the oven and testing it for doneness. And I learned that I’ve been seriously overcooking my fish—I’ve been cooking to opacity, instead of cooking to just before, and letting the fish rest and finish cooking. No wonder my fish is sometimes sawdusty. Helen insisted that we each get in there with a fork or with tongs to make sure we got a feel and a look for when a piece of fish is cooked. I don’t know why this was a new lesson to me—I knew it when it comes to chicken and meat, but I never made the mental leap to fish.

The other lesson? Enough seasoning. I am a girl who loves her salt. The Better Half has several times threatened to gift me with a salt lick. And I know that enough salt and pepper can make or break a dish, even with the very best ingredients. But I just didn’t have enough experience with fish to be brave with the salt and pepper like I am with vegetable or meat dishes. Watching Helen dip repeatedly into the bowl containing her day’s supply of kosher salt and fresh-ground pepper, to shower a visible coat of seasoning on the fish before cooking, I was reminded again of a lesson that I’d not been able to translate to fish.

And the results? Delicious. We ate as we went, sampling each dish as it was ready. I already knew I liked oily fish, so the bluefish and salmon were no surprise, but the leaner fishes were delicious, and full of savor. I was particularly caught by the halibut, served in a sorrel cream sauce—partly because I’d never cooked with sorrel before, and mostly because I.Hate.White.Fish. Or so I thought.

I’m excited—it’s been a while since I discovered something “new” when it came to cooking. But now, I’ve got a whole new world of fishy goodness to explore.




9 thoughts on “Learning to cook

  1. Janet

    You’ve totally made me want to sign up for this class!!! I don’t like cooking fish cause I find it smells up the house. But this I’ll try 🙂

    Btw, I gave you an award 🙂

  2. Liz D.

    One of the books that transformed my cooking was Stephanie Lyness’s translation/adaptation of Maniere’s Cuisine a la Vapeur. You can get a good copy for about $10.00 –white fish steamed is a revelation (especially if they are very very fresh).

  3. nyjlm

    ooh, I’m so excited for you! When my dh wants to make fish sticks for the kids I often tease them that I never had a fish stick till I was in college and that my kids don’t need them either! My dad fished a lot when I was little, and we always had fresh fish. I just took a two minute break writing this comment, thinking of all the yummy fish I’ve eaten in my life. mmm. so good. Yes, fish is good.

  4. TIV: the individual voice

    You are so passionate about cooking. How beautiful to have such a passion for something that is both an artform and a source of sustenance. And by the way, your blog looks great, too. I’d love to know what you like better about WordPress.

  5. Brenda Grate

    I too have recently started exploring cooking fish. I’ve always loved fish, but never knew what to do with it. It’s amazing the world that opens up when you try cooking with new foods. I spent the afternoon cooking and although I’m tired tonight, I felt so relaxed from it. I made a wonderful dish of roasted vegetables with brown rice, homemade muti-grain pitas and a few other things. 🙂 It was fun since I don’t cook much during the week because of work. It’s something I wish I had more time for. I enjoyed this entry.

  6. Angelina

    You’ve made me long to take some cooking classes. One limiting factor for me is that I don’t eat any flesh. No fish nor chicken, nor red meat. Finding a vegetarian cooking class (especially within my reach) that touches on the same kind of fine tuning that you got to experience in this fish cooking class is very hard.

    I have been a vegetarian since birth so I don’t need the basics of vegetarian cooking- I want that delving into the wonderful details of how to take good cooking to a new level.

    Even though I don’t eat fish, I love hearing people talk about food. This was such an enjoyable post!


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