flounder my way
June 24, 2008

Brittanny and I obsess about "Flounder Your Way" for weeks. At our watering holes, we're deep in technical piscine deliberation, which eventually gives way to mock plate layouts using napkins and beer bottles. It's the first time we get to show off our own style in class, and I'm dying to break the haute French mold and start investigating what I see as Irish farm food made brighter, spicier and with a bit more panache.

I finally buy a couple of flounder fillets for a test run in the final countdown week. What I really want to do is beer batter this fish, fry it up and serve it stacked elegantly on a snowy white plate (á là a photo from a recent Bon Appétit). In a perfect world, I'd add a loud hit of flavor and color—pinkly picked onions or bright green cucumbers (or both). But we've got a set list of ingredients, which means no beer, no onions, no cucumbers (and not even any vinegar).

First thing is to figure out the batter. A tempura batter can be whipped up simply enough with water and flour and egg (all approved items), but I worry it won't have the heft of a beer batter. We made a variety of beignets in pastry; some used beer and some just milk, but all were folded with egg whites to make them filmier than I have in mind. I try two variations: a tempura and a heavy cream-based batter, which whisks up so thick I have to add almost equal parts water to thin. I season both with salt, cayenne and paprika, even though I'm pretty sure my only flounder-day option will be salt and black pepper. Then I drop both into peanut oil heated somewhere around 365°. The difference is astonishing. The tempura batter is flat and sticks directly to the fish, doesn't turn a nice golden and falls apart in places, making for a mushier meal. My cream-based batter, on the other hand, puffs to a beautiful gold, airy enough for that transcendent cracked batter-creamy fish combination, but stout enough to pass muster in a pub.

My refresher course in pommes frites doesn't go quite as smoothly. The first batch comes out soggy and sad, worse than fast-food fries. The solution is to not shortchange the first round of cooking; the potatoes have to get a little dried out at 320° before being crisped and colored at 380°. It's possible I overcrisp the next set, but I prefer a crunchy fry.

The mayonnaise is the meal's low point. For some reason I believe I can turn it totally green by adding puréed cilantro (bonus item, picked by Chef). This might be possible in some world, but not with my lousy set of blending devices and not with such a small amount of cilantro, even if I blanche it first to soften. My mayonnaise comes out bright yellow with a few green flecks—as well as too salty at home and with a weird oil flavor at school, the meal's sole disappointment.

Our class's array of dishes is impressive; the plates are beautiful and the creativity surprises me. I think mine stands apart a little—eschewing fine dining, but refusing to be dismissed. What looks to me like the most straightforward (if superbly executed) plate on table other people ask how I came up with. It was so creative to fry it, some of my classmates say, while others grill me on what went in my batter.

It's all very well and good—but wait until you see version 2.0 with avocado mousse, watercress and those fuchsia-hued onions. And maybe some mangoes. This is, after all, the fun part.