The Ultimate Fish Cooking Class

In an aside at his last delivery to me of 2 lbs of his ramps, Edgar my ramp man mentioned that he had sold 600 lbs of ramps this season to The Essex restaurant in Centerbrook on Route 154 in Essex.  That got my attention.  I hadn’t heard of The Essex before, though it had been open for a year.  Anyplace that would buy 600 lbs of ramps must have a real love of fresh, local ingredients.

Then a few days later, Nancy Kirkles-Smith, who owns Weekend Kitchen in Essex and runs a cooking school with guest chefs out of her house, emailed me that Colt Taylor, the chef-owner of The Essex, would be giving The Ultimate Fish Cooking Class.  Kismet!  So I signed up for the class, which took place on Monday.  It was amazing, as I describe below.  Then on Tuesday, I reprised the techniques we learned and some of the dishes we cooked, which I also describe below.  It was easier to source the ingredients than usual because The Essex has a market where they sell their customers the ingredients they use to make the dishes they are cooking that week (in the 12 months The Essex has been open, they have changed the menu two dozen times!).  So I went there on Tuesday afternoon at 4:00 when the market opened and bought what I needed.  While I was there, I found out that The Essex would be teaming up with Litchfield Distillery on Wednesday to put on a seven course meal with paired cocktails called Bangkok Bonanza that would explore the flavor profiles of Thailand.  So I signed up for that and on Wednesday had a five-hour extravaganza of great food, drink and conversation, which I also describe below,  Meanwhile, my daughter Liz had given me a cookbook for Father’s Day, Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking, and I had just sourced online the recommended tahini from Soom (beautiful tahini, not that separated hard stuff that has been sitting on the supermarket shelf for a year) that would enable me to make the first recipe in the book, which was for Black Bass with Walnut Tarator.  So I worked that into my reprise of the dishes from the fish cooking class, substituting Kanpachi for Black Bass. Inspired by Zahav, I also made some hummus from some high quality dry chickpeas that I had sourced online from Paulouse Farms in Washington.

The Ultimate Fish Cooking Class

Chef Taylor started the class by telling his story and the philosophy of The Essex.  Here is a bit of the latter, from The Essex’s website:

“The Essex marks the transition between old New England charm and upscale elegance; a time that calls for refreshment and rejuvenation. Steeped in the rich heritage of the Connecticut River Valley, the land infuses our culinary vision with the freshest locally-sourced products available from farm and sea.  At the same time, we call on traditions from around the world, as well as the avant-garde to represent both the nostalgic and the modern through progressive interpretations of timeless dishes.  We removed the walls from the dining room to showcase the art of cooking in our open kitchen to pay homage to the food, wine, spirits and hospitality that is at the essence of everything!”

Chef Taylor then showed us how to “break down”  the Hawaiian Kanpachi (Amberjack) and King Salmon that we would be using in the class.  I have been a saltwater fisherman all my life, so I have filleted a lot of fish in my time, but I learned some new things from his demo.  I particularly liked the way he had chosen four dishes that would use the two fish efficiently, making “bricks” from the loin of each fish for two sautés, and using the belly and scraps from the Kanpachi to make ceviche, and the belly and scraps from the King Salmon to make salmon tartare.  Both of the fish were sourced from organic fish farms that raise the fish in close to natural conditions, closing off large bays in a way that allows most fish in, but keeps predators out.  The Kanpachi was from a farm in Hawaii and the King Salmon from a farm in Australia.  The Essex gets them flown in fresh regularly, never frozen.  Chef Taylor also showed us how to buy fish:  you should buy them whole, or have them broken down for you from a whole fish you can see, so that you can tell whether they have clear eyes, red gills and resilient flesh.

These are the plated salmon tartare (bottom) and Kanpachi ceviche (top) that we made in the class.  The ceviche incorporated a kimchi that was made from scratch at The Essex, and was garnished with Nasturium.

These are the two sautés that we made in the class.  At left is the King Salmon on a base of diced avocado and bulgur (boiled with kefir lime leaves, then sautéed in a grassy butter from Wildowsky Farm), drizzled with romaine-infused chicken stock.  At right is the Kanpachi on sautéd oyster mushrooms and a bed of romaine, which was flash fried and then steeped in chicken stock (creating the drizzle for the salmon dish); the Kanpachi dish then drizzled with a garlic scape liquor, which was made by blitzing the scape and some water, letting them steep for 10 minutes, then straining.

The key lesson of the class was how to properly sauté a brick of fish loin to get a crispy skin without overcooking the fish.  To do this, you season the flesh side only, wipe the skin dry, then cook skin-side-down in oil over medium-low heat, watching as the opaqueness climbs up the side of the brick and turning it at the 50% or 80% mark, based on whether or not you want it rare, and then cooking on the flesh side for a minute or two.

My Reprise

This is my Mise En Place of the ingredients I used to reprise the techniques and some of the dishes from the class.  I bought a 7 pound whole Kanpachi at The Essex market, along with some Wildowsky butter, some bulgur, some oyster mushrooms and Nasturtiums.  (So cool that they share with their customers the results of their careful sourcing, along with some of their scratch-made sauces and pickles.)  Everything else I already had on hand.  Most of the ingredients to the left are for the Ceviche Nikkei, which I made instead of the kimchi-based ceviche in the class.  The greens on the far right are a Pan Pacific mix of Ruby Streaks mustard greens, Purple Pac Choi, Asian Red kale, and Mizspoona from my Trifecta CSA this week.  I flash fried them instead of Romaine because I had them on hand and thought they would do just fine, which they did.

Here is my breakdown of the Kanpachi.  Lower left are the bricks from from the loin, which I sautéd.  Lower right are chunks from the belly, which I used for Ceviche Nikkei.  On top are the head and bones, which I used for a fish fumet, first to serve as a key ingredient for Walnut Tarator, and then later as a soup with rice noodles, sautéd Kanpachi, hard boiled egg and garnishes,

This is the dish I made Tuesday night with two bricks of sautéd Kanpachi over bulgur, oyster mushrooms and flash fried greens, with a Walnut Tarator.

The Walnut Tarator was from the Zahav cookbook.  (I found a source online of really fresh walnuts to use in it called NUTS U. S.) Walnut Tarator consists of 1/2 cup of walnut pieces (half of which are ground and half of which are chopped), 1/2 cup tahini sauce, 1/4 cup fish fumet, 2 T lemon juice, salt to taste, and 1 tsp ground Urfa (or Aleppo) pepper. The tahini sauce is made by blending and steeping a head of unpeeled garlic with 1/4 cup of lemon juice and 1/2 tsp of salt, then straining.  You then add 2 cups of tahini, 1 tsp of salt and 1/2 tsp cumin and whisk till smooth, adding ice water a few T at a time to thin it out. The fish fumet is made by sautéing a “sofrito” of 1 chopped onion, 1 chopped celery rib, and 1/2 tsp salt, then adding a fish head (minus eyes and gills) and bones, 1 tsp coriander seeds, 1 tsp peppercorns, 2 cardamom pods and 4 sprigs parsley, and cooking till the flesh around the bones turns opaque, about 10 minutes.  Then just cover with water and 1/2 cup dry white wine, bring to boil, skim any foam, and simmer for 15 minutes.

On Tuesday night I started soaking some chick peas, and used them on Wednesday morning to make hummus following the recipe in Zahav, which is simply 1 cup of chick peas, soaked overnight with 1 tsp of baking soda and water to more than cover, then drained and rinsed, then placed in a pot with 1 tsp of baking soda, water to cover plus 4 inches, then simmered covered over medium heat for an hour or so till super tender. The cooked chickpeas are drained, then combined with 1 1/2 cups of tahini sauce, 1 tsp salt, and 1/4 tsp cumin, and blitzed in a food processor for several minutes, until it is smooth and super creamy. I ate the hummus for breakfast while it was still warm, simply garnished with paprika, olive oil and parsley.

It was excellent just that way, but I was still a little hungry so I heated up some of the leftover bulgur, mushroom and greens and one of the sautéd Kanpachi bricks and plated them on top of some of the hummus, and drizzled over some of the Walnut Tarator.  This was outstanding.

For Wednesday lunch I made Ceviche Nikkei (see Divertimenti Cookery School: Japanese Peruvian) with the chunks of Kanpachi belly, garnished with radishes, scallions and Nasturtiums.  What makes this Japanese is that the fish does not “cook” in the sauce.  The sauce is added just before you serve it, so the dish is more like sashimi.  The Divertimenti recipe adds ice cubes to the sauce, but I think it is better to serve it in a bowl that fits inside a larger bowl of ice so as not to dilute the sauce.  Bet I had a better lunch than you did on Wednesday!

Then on Thursday, I used the leftover fish fumet and the last of my sautéd Kanpachi to make a soup.  Started by sautéing a “sofrito” of chopped onion, ginger and garlic, then adding the fish fumet, some lemon grass and dried rice noodles and simmered for 12 minutes.  Then added the Kanpachi to just heat through.  Added a halved, just cooked hard boiled egg (using Food Lab method), and garnished with radishes, scallions, cilantro and bean sprouts, and then drizzled with some sriracha.  This was real good.  This makes four different dishes that I made from the Kanpachi.  The only part of the fish that I ddn’t use were the eyes and the gills.

Bangkok Bonanza

This is the menu from this adventure in exploring the flavor profiles of Thailand.  The Essex calls itself “An American Restaurant” because Chef Taylor believes that “American” food is the food of the country’s many ethnicities, including Thai.

We started by having a punch and passed hors d’oeuvres at the beautiful bar, which features a mural painted by Colt’s artist mother.  (BTW, my mother was also an artist and our home growing up had an ever expanding set of murals on the walls.)

This was the first course: a large Stonnington prawn, fried crispy and meant to be eaten in its entireity (I did).  Servd with a salad of papaya and carrot with a galangal/kefir lime sauce and a mango sauce.

The second course was a fried Malltake mushroom with the same sauces used with the shrimp.

The third course was “Lobster With A Lesson In Curry.”  Here is the lobster.

And here are the curries.

The curries arranged on my plate.  Staring at 9:00 and working from mild to hot, they are: yellow, Massaman, Panang, red and green.  This was a really clever idea,

The fourth course was Pad Krapoow Moo Sap, a Thai street food of ground pork and tamarind that is grilled in a banana leaf,  Loved the smell of the charred banana leaf.

Opened up and eaten with a couple of the curries from the third course.

The fifth course was Wagyu with Oyster Sauce (made at The Essex) with Pad Thai noodles.  The oyster sauce gave the Wagyu beef an unctuousness that was simply out of this world.

We had been having a special cocktail with each course.  I think they must have gone light on the alcohol with each one, as I don’t think anyone was inebriated. This was an additional surprise for the dessert course based on a coffee liquor.

Finally, the dessert course, which included a coconut burnt rice, a coconut/papaya smoothie, mango stewed in a syrup, and passion fruit gelato with crispy oats and lavender dust.  The use of lavender dust with ice cream is an inspired idea, which I am dying to try with fresh picked local strawberries and vanilla ice cream and crispy oats.

I shared a table with Katie, Colt’s business partner and girlfriend, Dana, a sous chef and bartender, Alysia, a wine and liquor wholesaler who represents Litchfield Distillery, Mike, a friend of Alysia, and Ty, another singleton like me.  I had positioned myself at the table to be able to look into the open kitchen to see the food prepared, but I completely forgot to do that as the conversation with my table mates was so convivial.  An awesome evening.  The Essex is my new favorite restaurant.


I drove today up to Litchfield to see the Litchfield Distillery and took the tour and tasted some of their bourbon, vodka and gin.

Here is the production operation, looking a bit like a Steam Punk art exhibition:

This is the barrel room where the bourbon is aged in charred white oak barrels.  One of the brothers who owns the distillery is using a “whisky thief” to give us a sample of a three-year-old bourbon at cask strength.

Back in the tasting room we also sampled three bottle strength bourbons, two vodkas and a gin.  I particularly liked a bourbon that had a second barrel aging in a bourbon barrel that had been used to age maple syrup.  I also liked their vodka.  Bought a bottle of both.


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