Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Seafood Encounters and Struggles with Aioli

My grandma, whom I call 'Seilla, was the first to teach me how to cook. I remember nights in Downey, standing on a step stool in the kitchen "helping" to cook dinner after gymnastics class. I remember reading the recipe for chocolate chip cookies off the Nestle Morsels bag, sifting flour, salt and baking soda through the sifter, and using half butter, half Crisco to make the cookies soft and chewy. My favorite part was when everything came together in her mixing bowl. Yellow egg yolks swirled with vanilla and became grainy in the sugar, then smooth with the powdery flour. I would finally dump the chocolate chips into the big bowl, standing on my tip-toes and peaking into the speckled batter. My cookies never taste as good as those did. Maybe I should bring back the Crisco.

I also remember my first lesson on seafood. My grandparents took Brendan (4) and me (7) out for a sail in their Catalina 34 and we spent the summer afternoon fishing for halibut. Brendan was the first to make a catch. He proudly reeled in his impressive yield; Papa removed the hook from its lip and tossed it into a large bucket of sea water. Smaller fish were caught and released, uninjured, playing their part in a sort of innocent nautical utopia.

For me, however, the thrill of a tug on the pole was short-lived. After patiently waiting my turn, I reeled in a catch and found that my fish had swallowed the hook. Papa tried to remove it. He followed the wiry fishing line down its mouth and into its stomach. Blood was everywhere, and soon the fish was called dinner, living out its numbered minutes in a bucket on a boat.

We took that bucket home and Brendan and I watched Papa gut the two fish with a knife in the grassy backyard. He brought them to 'Seilla on a kitchen platter and she grilled them in butter on the stove. That was my first taste of seafood.

So it is fitting, I think, that on Friday 'Seilla and I took a class together on cooking fish at Prep Kitchen Essentials in Seal Beach. After introductions and going over the menu for the evening (and pouring two glasses of Nobilo Sauvignon Blanc), 'Seilla and I set to work on our assignment: Whole Roasted Snapper with Aioli and Tomatoes. The kitchen bustled with 10 to 12 people chopping, measuring, grinding, mixing and frying.

I chopped cloves of garlic for the aioli and spent about 10 minutes just looking for a wet-measuring cup (God forbid we use a dry-measuring cup for olive oil). Then, we did our best to puree garlic, salt, cayenne pepper and a tiny bit of oil in a food processor. There didn't seem to be enough in the processor for the garlic to puree. We watched, frustrated, as the food sat untouched underneath the frantically spinning blades, so we added some more oil along with the lemon juice and eggs. A few minutes later, the mixture was not emulsifying, so we poured the contents into a bowl and tried using an infusion blender instead.

Later, we still had a soupy mixture on our hands. Colleen Johnson, our instructor mentioned that we must not have added the oil slowly enough and, by now, it would probably never emulsify. So we started from scratch and 'Seilla vowed that she would never make aioli again.

Eventually, we were back on track with a properly-thickened sauce, boiled garlic, and a slew of spice-concoctions to rub onto the fish. It was time to prepare the snapper. Colleen brought him out, red, scaly and staring right at us with his mouth hanging open. He was a beauty. We stuffed him with garlic, rosemary and thyme and set him up on slices of beefsteak tomatoes. He was quite happy to bake for about 30 minutes.

Colleen took him out of the oven and plated the dishes, and soon we were discussing whether the aioli was too lemony. I thought it was fabulous, with just the right amount of zing, and the perfect ending to a fun, if not educational, evening.

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