Maybe it was the smell of the fish hatchery at Newport Beach when I was a kid, or that dinner during my high school senior prom. We ate at a very well-known seafood restaurant down at the end of Portland's Waterfront. I ordered fettuccine with scallops. I'd never had scallops and figured just like any other white protein, it had to taste just like chicken, right? So I ordered it. And I sat next to my date in my fancy dress with my fancy hair and fancy make up and, gracefully, dug in to my fancy plate of fettuccine with scallops. I took my first bite and chewed on something that definitely did not have the texture of chicken and absolutely not anywhere near the flavor of it. It had a spongy feel to it. I then swallowed. What I felt was something slimy and slippery slide down my throat. It was unappetizing and not what I had in mind. I finished my pasta minus tiny bites of the scallops. And I'm pretty sure it was that moment that I decided I was not a sea-foodie.
With all that said, I have recently began to give seafood - okay, at least fish - a try. I will eat white fish and during Culinary Skills II last term we did make shrimp, cod and steamed salmon, all of which I truly enjoyed. Given this, I was ready to start my new class rotation today: Meat and Seafood Identification and Fabrication. In this course we'll be guided through the basics of product identification, ordering, receiving, storing and cutting. And tonight we wasted no time jumping right in. Funny, the majority of the course looks like it will be focused mainly on meat, but today we dove in to...seafood!
"When we go up into the kitchen, you'll notice that the scallops and the squid will be dead; the oysters, clams and mussels are alive so it will be a little more challenging to crack them open and dig out the meat," Chef Rolf.
After an hour and a half of lecture on shellfish we headed upstairs to room 503: Butchery and Charcuterie. The room was a bit smaller than the former kitchen we were in a couple of weeks ago, and instead of long, metal tables, we were welcomed by about six long, thick, wooden tables set around the room forming a big U-shape. The table positioned at the front of the room had a large mirror fashioned above it, allowing us students to watch wide-eyed as Chef Rolf grabbed a few of his first subjects for demonstration; oysters.
Chef quickly scrubbed the oyster shell clean in a small tub of water, took a wadded up paper towel in his hand and held down the left side of the shell. He then proceeded with placing an oyster knife at the right end of the shell, lightly wiggling it until he felt the shell pop. He moved his knife around the circumference of the shell to completely dislodge it from its other half. He then took a pairing knife and scooted it underneath the oyster, removing any connection of the meat to the shell, and flipped it over to present the mollusk's more attractive side. He went on to tend to the clams, scallops and mussels in a similar fashion. Then came something very unlike a clam or an oyster or anything that required cracking or popping open. The next victim was a squid. Even though squid have no hard outer shell, they are considered mollusks and so were on the list for today. Oh the look of it was just not good for my eyes to see. I don't get too queasy with live things that are to be eaten, but the squid was just too much. What is it about this specimen that gave man the idea that it would be great sauteed in a light butter sauce or breaded in flour, egg wash and panko and deep fried? Even the name makes my skin crawl a bit. Squid. It just sounds like something squishy. Squid. Squish. Squeamish. Moving on...
The six steps to cleaning and preparing squid:
a) Pull off the head. The interior organs will come out with it. (OMG!).
b) Pull off the skin. (Yah!)
c) Pull out the plastic-like quill from the body sac (There is a whole lot of "pulling" going on here!). Lay the body flat and scrape your knife across it, pushing out the innards. (Oh you are kidding).
d) Cut off the tentacles just above the eyes. Discard the head and organs. (My eyes are glazing over and I'm feeling faint).
e) Be sure to remove the hard beak, which is found at the center of the tentacle cluster. (To do this one must squeeze the tentacle cluster, the beak will then pop out. Fabulous.).
f) Leave the body sac whole for stuffing or cut into rings for frying or sauteing (Why??).
But watching Chef Rolf was not enough, of course. Now it was our turn.
"Everybody grab six oysters, six clams, 12 mussels, 12 scallops and three squid," he said.
Ok, oysters, clams, mussels, etc. fine. But THREE squid. Oh my goodness, I thought, how was I going to get through this one? I gathered all of my product into my metal bowl and headed over to the tub that contained the squid. Taking a quick breath I grabbed the first one, and I dropped it. I grabbed it again, and dropped it, again. The feel of the squid was so undesirable that I could barely stand to have it in my hands for more than two seconds. I mustered up enough strength to finally grab my three friends and we headed back to my spot on the chopping table, their eyes looking up at me. I popped open my oysters. I cut open my mussels. I separated my clams and took apart my scallops (quite messy, I might add). And the three squid were just staring at me. Well, I thought, I have to do this. I might as well get over it right here an now. With a few short breaths that resembled that of a woman giving birth, I took my first squid. I separated the skin and slid it off the body (Yah!). I grabbed the head and tugged on it until I saw the internal organs follow behind it (OMG!). I pulled out the plastic quill (Interesting. It looks like something you can really write with). I pushed out the remaining innards (Oh!). And finally, I cut below the eyes and pushed out the beak (Ew!). But I made it. And quite honestly, the next two were a breeze.
I never really liked seafood, but have recently been giving it a try. Today was the first day of meat and seafood identification and fabrication and for someone who is just now opening up to trying fish and seafood, tonight was like being in the express lane of getting into the middle of it all! I touched and got personal with more seafood this evening than in my entire lifetime. But when I say this I'm actually smiling. This is the part of culinary school that I love. It's so adventurous and I'm doing things that I never dreamed of doing.
Tomorrow night we're sure to be doing some more cutting, but will also be making crawfish etouffee, seafood pasta, crab cakes and fried calamari and oysters. And I'm going to try it all!