Bass eye -- Flounder ain't nowhere near this pretty.
Despite all of the fun, delicious lessons during the last week of level 2, there was a cloud looming – the level two practical exam. The components of this practical exam were divided between pastry and culinary skills. For the pastry portion we had to make Crème Anglaise (a stirred custard) and Crème Chantilly (whipped cream) and then pipe the cream into a couple of shapes. I was pretty confident that I could pull those off well enough. For the culinary portion, however, we had to quarter a chicken and fillet a flounder – each within 15 min. I was not so confident I could accomplish this in the allotted time. In fact I was pretty panicked.
During the course of the month leading up to the exam I had tried to practice both of these. I invited friends over for dinners to eat all the stuff I was breaking down. Chicken was easy enough to find, but up to a week before the exam I was only down to 20 minutes per chicken.
The flounder presented an even bigger problem. Not only was I still too slow at filleting flounder, it turns out they’re incredibly hard to find whole. I should explain that flounder is a flatfish and most of the whole fish you see at the store are round fish. This is for good reason. Flatfish are slimy, slippery, and incredibly gross to clean and fillet. (You might also recall that the flatfish lesson was not exactly my favorite day.) I’ve come to the conclusion that major grocery stores do not carry flounder in whole form because no normal customer in their right mind would want to deal with them. They’re bottom feeders so their stomachs are full of dirt and scum. The Whole Foods near my apartment doesn’t even break them down themselves; they get them delivered already portioned out. I know because I called and tried to special order.
In the early weeks of the month, I made due with practicing portioning round fish, just to get used the movements. However, as the exam grew closer, I grew more anxious. A week before I still had not found a purveyor. The Friday night before Hurricane Irene hit New York, when everyone else was running around stocking up on batteries, water, and boarding up, my biggest concern was where the hell to find whole flounder on the island of Manhattan. (To be fair, I’m from Florida and I did take care of stocking up on supplies.) I was not successful.
I eventually found the answer to my problems: Chinatown. There were fish of all kinds hidden in tiny stores on crowded streets. Perhaps they weren’t the freshest fish in the world, but they had flounder and they had them whole. (But mind you, even they looked at me weird when I said I didn’t want them cleaned.) I stocked up.
That last week I rotated between picking up whole chickens at Trader Joe’s and my flounder from Chinatown and I would break them down one right after the other. When my timing wasn’t improving as much as I wanted, I started breaking down 4 or 5 fish or chicken per night.
I’m not going to lie to you, our place pretty much stank for a few days. My fridge and freezer were so full of chicken and fish that I started trying to give them away on Facebook. I eventually pawned off bags of frozen chicken and fish portions to my best friend.
On one of the last days of the level, we were given an assignment to prepare “Flounder Our Way.” We each had to develop a recipe with a given set of ingredients from which to choose. On the night before this exercise – after fish filleting practice – I worked hard on my recipe and tested it for dinner to make sure it worked, and frankly it tasted pretty good.
The next day when I went into class, however, it took me almost 25 minutes to fillet the fish. This really psyched me out. In addition, I made my sauce a little more complicated than I should have, but I was excited at the chance to do something a bit creative. I also decided to use rice as a garnish for the dish, and I really shouldn’t have done this because rice and I are not friends. For whatever reason, I can do paella and risotto, but simple rice often does not turn out well for me, and it definitely didn’t come out well that day. The rice came out undercooked, and I ran out of time. Moreover, in between all of the last minute scrambling, I did not taste my sauce at the very end – and that was supposed to be the star of the dish. Although I salted throughout, there definitely wasn’t enough in there. Hardly anyone did well on the dish, but I definitely came out feeling deflated and in need of some cheering up from the girls in the locker room after class. (It definitely didn’t help that my insomnia was back and tweaking my emotional level.) I went back to Chinatown and got more fish.
Flounder with Tomato Wine Sauce and Roasted Vegetables --
by this point it had been sitting out at a while, so sauce has separated a bit.
Adding to my anxiety was the fact that we had to travel the weekend immediately before the practical. We had the wedding of some old friends to go to back in California. I could see nothing else to do but to bring my knives with me and practice on the West Coast. I wrote the friend we were staying with and asked if I could practice butchering in their kitchen. I paid the extra baggage fee to check my knives, hit the grocery store pretty much as soon as we arrived in Cali and went to work chopping more chickens.
I arrived back at school on Tuesday a bit weary and haggard from jet lag and lack of sleep. However, all that practice paid off because I ROCKED that practical.