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When I was a wee culinary student, I spent one very long, lucky Saturday trailing in the kitchen at Le Bernardin.
I minced parsley, nervously. I huddled among the line cooks, tasting spoonfuls of soulful, intricate sauces. I wandered into a walk-in, where geoducks lolled out of their buckets (look, terrifying!). I tried, and failed, to help a person much more skilled than I drag crusty, frozen bread across a meat slicer, making planks as thin as Melba toast. I stood transfixed in front of pastry chef Michael Laiskonis' dark, calm lair for a good 40 minutes, until he handed me an eggshell filled with chocolate custard.
But mostly I backed into a corner and watched. The pre-theater rush of orders stirred up the cooks in the raw station first at 5pm, then pulsed through the kitchen, on and on the rest of the night. (Here's a glimpse of what it looked like, from the blog Zen Can Cook).
In this carnival of high technique, there were many things I would never try at home. For those flourishes, I would go to Le Bernardin for dinner, in my approximation of fancy clothes, and it would be worth it, I promise you. But there was one surprisingly simple technique, showed to me proudly by a nice fellow on the line, that changed the way I cook fish at home.
The secret ingredient? Wondra® flour, usually heralded for its clumpless gravies and sauces. It's "the quick and easy flour for today's lifestyles" (a tagline that probably hasn't been updated since the product's debut in 1963). But despite its scary casserole-era gimmickry (and packaging), it turns out it's long been a favorite of Julia Child (for crepe batter), Jacques Pepin (for chicken cutlets), David Bouley (for dusting anything pan-fried) and, in turn, Le Bernardin's gleaming star chef, Eric Ripert (above, a-gleam).
Classically trained French cooks. A decidedly American convenience product. What gives? For his part, Ripert says he learned the technique in Bouley's kitchen in the early 1990s, his last post before moving to Le Bernardin. "It surprised me because in France we didn’t use any flour at Jamin (Joël Robuchon's first restaurant). We didn’t use anything at all for this purpose when sautéing fish -- but I found Wondra makes it easier."
Wondra is known more generically as instant flour, because it has been pre-cooked and dried using a "patented agglomeration process" (shh, General Mills) -- which leaves it with a fine, slightly gritty texture, reminiscent of cornmeal. Some malted barley flour is thrown in too. All of this means that it's more prone to beautiful browning and crisping than regular all-purpose flour.
Ripert has been known to use Wondra on anything from monkfish loins to soft-shell crab, but it's especially good for bringing out the beauty of skin-on fillets of things like salmon or striped bass. It goes like this: Dry your fish well -- you can even squeegee off excess moisture with the back of a paring knife. After dusting with salt, pepper and Wondra, you lay the skin side in bubbling canola oil and press down commandingly with a spatula (the skin contracts and buckles instantly, and you want to keep it all in contact with the pan).
A couple minutes later, you flip the fish, and shove it into a 400°F oven, where the skin will continue crisping up in the dry heat as the bottom poaches in the oil. Wait just a couple more minutes, then pull it out and stick a metal skewer into the center. Count to 5, then touch the metal to your lip to make sure it feels just warm. Done. The skin should be golden and taut, the flesh tender and just cooked through.
Seafood is increasingly precious these days. You want to treat it right and you really want to taste it, every last bit. Once you get this simple rhythm down, you won't overcook it, undercook it, or push the soft, slack skin to the side of the plate again.
Le Bernardin's Crispy-Skinned Fish
Adapted from On the Line by Eric Ripert and Christine Muhlke.
1 tablespoon canola oil
Four 6-ounce skin-on fish fillets (like striped bass or salmon)
Fine sea salt
Freshly ground white pepper
Wondra flour for dusting
Got a genius recipe you'd like to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].