Snakeheads. The invasive species of asian predatory fish that has invaded Maryland waters and my life.
This summer my chef worked diligently to educate the people of Maryland that the only way to fix the snakehead problem would be to create a commercial market for them, and EAT THEM ALL! One of these endeavors was a collaboration beer dinner with two guest chefs and my chef showcasing a variety of ways to cook (and eat) the fish. Here’s where I come in….my chef asked me if I could possibly make a dessert with it. Umm sure, let me think about it.
Mulled over the possibility of making something with fish and vaguely recalled chefs on Iron Chef doing that and failing miserably. Remembered seeing a recipe in a Nobu cookbook about some sort of candied/crystallized salmon and thought about doing that. But since there would be only a limited amount of snakehead meat available, decided against that as well. I was running out of ideas, options, and time. My chef then suggested candying the skin so I took that idea and ran with it. Decided to do a mock fish dessert, and make coconut mousse which would resemble the fish in texture and serve it with the candied skin, ginger caramel, and tropical fruit salsa.
The day before the dinner, my chef and one of the guests chefs took over the prep kitchen to break down all the snakeheads. Which unfortunately included descaling them, since I needed the skin, making a hell of a mess. At the end of the dat, I was handed a fish bucket full of skin. The owner had a limited amount of faith in my ability to pull this off jokingly (I think) warned me that my job was on the line if I fucked it up.
Great….so the plan was to wake up early, get to the restaurant early, get everything done early and then breathe a sigh of relief before the dinner. Yeah none of that happened, as luck would have it, it would be the day our lunch cook severely sprains his ankle causing me to have to cook lunch, me setting the grill on fire nearly causing the ansel system to go off, and then (my favorite) an earthquake (which I thought I hallucinated). At this point its 3:30pm and I have done *absolutely nothing* for a dinner that starts at 7pm. I have to make a few adjustments to how I wanted to plate it. Originally I wanted to pipe the mousse out on each piece of candied skin between a layer of caramel and the top with the salsa. So it would resemble a piece of sauteed fish. But time was no on my side, so I ended up resorting to my ever faithful souffle cups as molds and focused on actually candying the skin.
I knew the first step would be to boil it down in simple syrup. A LOT of simple syrup since the skin is terribly bitter. While this was working it started microplaning some ginger for the caramel sauce and all the knifework for my fruit salsa. With the garnishes out of the way, it was time to deep fry the skin to make it crispy. Took a piece out of the simple syrup, deep fried it. And nervously brought it down to the owner/chef. Sorry to admit, but this first piece was absolutely disgusting. It was still soggy and bitter tasting. Added another pound (or two) of sugar to my simple syrup concoction, put it back on to simmer, and started to pray. This time to distract myself, decided to finish making my caramel, which involved flambing it with rum. Everyone was a bit wary of that since I’d already set the kitchen on fire once that day. But it was comforting to have all the other pieces of my dessert together.
Time again to try deep frying the skin, this time I came out with a perfectly crispy piece of skin that looked freaking awesome. If you held it up to the light, you could see the snake print on the skin that the fish gets its name from. Deliriously happy, and done just in time, to start cooking the first course of the dinner. The rest of the night flew effortlessly by because at that point, what else could possibly go wrong?