Monday, April 2, 2012

Swimming with the big fish: Sydney Seafood School with Giovanni Pilu

I don't cook much seafood except fish fillets or prawns. Prawns don't scare me, perhaps as I've been exposed to peeling prawns from a young age. Or perhaps it's that their eyes are more comical than scary.

On the other hand, whole fish are definitely intimidating in the kitchen, so it was a great opportunity to allay some of these fears at the Sydney Seafood School at the Sydney Fish Markets.

Giovanni Pilu from Pilu at Freshwater for Sydney Seafood School,
Sydney Fish Markets, Pyrmont

While the majority of the Sydney Fish Markets look a little run-down, the 2009- refurbished Sydney Seafood School is a designer's delight. All classes at the Sydney Seafood School start with a demonstration in the slick, lecture-theatre styled auditorium.

I'd chosen the four-hour class with Giovanni Pilu, of Pilu at Freshwater and a soon-to-be cookbook author. Specialising in Sardinian fare, Pilu was at pains to highlight that 'Italian' as a cuisine is too broad a categorisation given the significant regional differences in food across the country.

For example, even on the island of Sardinia, coastal cuisine focuses on the abundant seafood harvest while inland cooking is based on pork, lamb, wild game, sheep's cheese and fregola.

Pilu demonstrates cleaning of raw cuttlefish
Pilu practices seasonality in his cooking and restaurant menus, and implored the full auditorium: "Please don't buy imported fruit and vegetables." Australia produces enough fruit and vegetables for 180 million people, he says, and that no asparagus is better than out-of-season asparagus imported all the way from Peru, for example.

Pilu demonstrated three separate dishes that we would be cooking in groups of six afterwards. His multi-tasking and ways with cuttlefish and gnocchi made everything look a breeze, but the class seemed to know better as they studiously read the provided recipes, took notes and closely watched the large television screens above the demo kitchen.

Pilu demonstrates making potato gnocchi
The impressive ease in which Pilu makes gnocchetti, or small gnocchi, even helps me forget my own tortuous experience years ago, although his kipfler potatoes were baked and ready to go (compared to my boiled and waterlogged potatoes).

After approximately two hours of our very own, live, in-person cooking show, we could see and smell the end results. But to taste, we'd have to make our own lunch in the class kitchen next door.

Sydney Seafood School class kitchens
The kitchens for the classes are Fisher and Paykel island setups that include the stovetop, oven, fridge, sink and storage space - indeed, small apartments might well look into this setup.

All the ingredients and utensils were at our disposal, as too help where needed from Sydney Seafood School assistants. This is how cooking should be. Better yet, everything but the Global knives could be dumped into big containers for someone else to wash.

With six people per bench, my group split the three dishes among three couples - and I'd landed the big fish, quite literally.

Snapper
The snapper we received for the main course was longer than your standard size plastic chopping board and heavy too. As possibly my first whole fish to be cooked in the kitchen, it was big one to remember.

The monster snapper was already cleaned and scaled while Pilu recommends not washing fish in water but wiping it clean, inside and out, with paper towels so as not to potentially lose flavour into the washing water.

Fresh snapper should have perky, not sunken eyes; firm pink flesh; and a pleasant sea smell and our specimen certainly complied. For ease of cooking and subsequent eating, Pilu tells us to take off the gills and excess tail; where gardening scissors come in very handy or in our case, a massive cleaver for trimming the tail.

The snapper - scored and salted
Another cute tip Pilu gives us is that for presentation, the fish's stomach should face oneself while the head should be facing left, "otherwise it's upside down".

To cook, we scored the large snapper several times down to the bone (on one side only in this case) and generously patted the skin with salt flakes, which helps achieve a crispy skin.

Grilling the snapper on the stovetop
The snapper gets the stovetop grill treatment ahead of 25 minutes in the oven with juices, and flipping the scored side over is definitely the hardest part. After a good ten minutes we could see that the flesh in the centre was still raw pink, but ripe for some flavours to be introduced.

Snapper scattered with garlic and green olives
The flavours - as per one of Pilu's restaurant dishes - were Vernaccia (a dry Italian white wine that could be substituted with Vermentino or any other dry white), gorgeously meaty Sardinian Bosane olives, garlic and fish stock which was thankfully pre-made ahead of the class.

Twenty-five minutes in a hot oven with lots of basting with juices would have this snapper ready for lunch, with resting time as per a piece of meat. A sauce was to be made out of the fish's cooking juices, chopped parsley ("not the curly stuff, please," says Pilu) and butter.

Cleaning cuttlefish
Meanwhile, everything else was happening at the same time, including the incredibly messy and finicky job of cleaning cuttlefish. I think most groups battled with burst ink sacs as blackened, slippery fingers tried to remove the cuttlebone, skin and membranes.

Even Pilu's kitchen staff were opposed to having this cephalopod on the menu, which while cheaper than squid, is labour- and time-intensive to prepare.

Once cleaned, the white slices were cooked for all of a minute in a pot of boiling water flavoured with lemon, cloves, bay leaves, pepper, tomatoes and salt. The just cooked cuttlefish was to join a salad of pine mushrooms from Oberon, fennel and Pilu's very own Australian-produced bottarga cured mullet roe.

Baked kipfler potatoes going through the ricer
On yet another corner of the kitchen island, gnocchi was on the go. Pilu had made it look way too easy, although the team effort wasn't too much off his demonstration. Pilu likes to use kipflers although Desiree potatoes can be substituted.

The most time-consuming part for home cooking would be baking the potatoes - a good hour at least to cook them to complete softness. They're best through the ricer still hot, though I seem to remember painful hours with a fork to mash my boiled potatoes years ago.

Rolling long strips of the gnocchi dough
Pilu's recipe uses minimal type 00 flour, one egg, grated pecorino cheese and nutmeg to end up with soft, still fluffy sausages of the potato dough. The gnocchi is made by feel rather than strict recipe instructions, so the small amount of flour needs to be added gradually and not necessarily all of it.

Kipfler potato gnocchi
Chopping them up into small gnocchetti, one could spend the necessary hours rolling each dumpling over a fork for grooves across the gnocchi (it holds the accompanying sauce better), although I'm sure most sane people cooking for six people or more wouldn't really bother.

The gnocchi are cooked in salted boiling water, where it's apparently an Italian habit to use 10 grams of salt per litre of water to cook pasta. Some of the starchy water from cooking pasta can be added to the sauce for more flavour and natural thickening.

Cooking smoky pancetta
The sauce for the gnocchi was pure luxe, starting with batons of smoky pancetta from Pino's Dolce Vita. Although normal pancetta or guanciale cured pork jowl could be used also, the smoky stuff was Pilu's top choice.

The smells coming from the pans of pancetta cooking in olive oil were sublime and the exact aroma that would get mouths watering on command.

Spanner crab and smoky pancetta
To finish the decadent sauce we added prawn stock and the cheat's version of raw Queensland spanner crab meat from a packet (frozen, thawed and likely shell-free but not guaranteed).

Pilu called the combination of surf and turf "nearly a perfect marriage", finished off with a textural contrast of crumbled carta di musica Sardinian flatbread over the hopefully fluffy gnocchi.

Sydney Seafood School dining room
With the cooking done and someone else doing the cleaning, the groups moved to the gorgeously styled dining room to taste the spoils of all our hard work.

Featuring a panoramic image of Blackwattle Bay and the most stunning, nautical-inspired light features, we dined like happy chefs.

Kipfler potato gnocchi, spanner crab and smoky pancetta
With a fair hit of dried chilli, the gnocchi was sensational. Not the fluffiest gnocchi I've ever had but up there, the luxurious sauce starred. The pancetta was an explosion of flavour in every mouthful while the prawn stock contributed an underlying sweetness with plenty of depth, propping up the subtle crab flesh.

Cuttlefish, fennel, pine mushrooms and bottarga salad
Dressed simply with lemon, oil, salt, pepper and a final sprinkle of bottarga, the salad was a refreshing combination that really let the cuttlefish shine. Perfectly tender, and with some chew to the thicker-than-squid flesh, the cuttlefish and fennel washed away the thoughts of black-stained hands with ease.

Snapper with Vernaccia, green olives and parsley
The undeniable piece de resistance of snapper had the most incredible aromas when unveiled. With resting time, the entire huge fish was cooked to perfection and came away from the bone with ease.

A hunk of almost bone-free fish, olive cheeks, cooked garlic, the buttery parsley sauce and bread for mopping up juices - perfection.

(Note this was Pilu's demonstration snapper - we hoed into our fish with much excitement and demolished half of it before I remembered a photo. His looked just slightly better than ours). A fish this size also meant there was plenty of leftovers for another glorious meal.

Sydney Seafood School - a fabulous cooking and dining experience
Our three-course shared lunch was complemented with Sardinian wine and ended with tea and coffee. We left with Sydney Seafood School-branded insulated carry bags which will be perfect for future Fish Markets purchases.

And I think I can safely say, having swum with the big fish at Sydney Seafood School, I'm confident of attempting my own huge snapper at home for a seriously classy and impressive meal.

Sydney Seafood School classes run throughout the year at the Sydney Fish Markets. See more photos at my Facebook page. See Sydney Fish Markets Easter opening hours here.

Food, booze and shoes attended Giovanni Pilu's cooking class as a guest, with thanks to Sydney Seafood School and Inner West Live.

7 comments:

Jasmin said...

Seafood is a daunting thing to take on in terms of cooking. I get anxious about 'how will I know when it's done' and there is nothing worse than overcooked seafood.
I've been thinking about doing one of their classes for ages.

I think you have just swayed me.

gaby @ lateraleating said...

Looks like hard work, but you managed to nail it!

sugarpuffi said...

wow cuttlefish is messy business!

Vivian - vxdollface said...

I made gnocchi from scratch once.. turned out horribly wrong, was nothing like it was supposed to be T_T I made it for Father's day as well.. we mum had to rescue the dinner by cooking something else ><

I love the interior of the Seafood School! I've got a gift cert but haven't decided which class to go to. Got invited for the Chilli crab and that was really fun, can't wait to go back! Seems like you had an enjoyable class too :)

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

They've got a nice set up there don't they. We did a crab cooking class and the crab was so delicious!

Tina said...

Hi Jasmin - Ooh, overcooked seafood is terrible, hence the importance of resting time, like a piece of steak - especially for a fish the size of that snapper! Fantastic class with Pilu - highly recommended.

Hi Gaby - I didn't have to do the cuttlefish so I was lucky :)

Hi sugarpuffi - Sure is! Stains beneath the nails too, apparently.

Hi Vivian - Definitely one of the best cooking experiences I've had :) Gnocchi - so easy in theory and demonstrations...

Hi Lorraine - The crab class sounds like a great idea since it seems so difficult to do at home...

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