Learning to Cook Seafood, Italian Style
Boot Camp for Cooking Fish and Shellfish
It's 8:00 p.m. on a Friday night in August. While many of my friends are at some outdoor dining spot sipping a glass of chilled pinot grigio, or maybe an air conditioned movie, I'm in a hot kitchen gutting a fish. I couldn't have been happier.
When I recently got an e-mail about a seafood course for home cooks being offered at The Italian Culinary Academy (ICA), it struck a nerve. I've always been insecure when cooking fish and shellfish. There is something about the fragility of a piece of sole, the mystery of oysters, and the delicate flavors of nearly everything from the sea that would confound my otherwise steady kitchen hands. Plus seafood is expensive and I'd get furious at myself for not cooking it better. So I signed up.
The ICA's "Italian Fish and Shellfish Intensive" was 15 hours of strictly seafood, taught in five-hour classes held over three consecutive August evenings. Wearing chef's whites, a small group of home cooks worked in the spectacular SoHo kitchens shared by the ICA and its better-known sister school, the French Culinary Institute (FCI).
You don't need prior cooking class experience to appreciate ICA's amateur classes. Yes, they are indeed serious and nothing is dumbed down. But the quality of the instructors make the experience successful for home cooks at all levels of skill and confidence. Joining me in the class was my sister-in-law, Sophie, who is a superb home cook but someone who has never taken a cooking class before. Yet she, like the rest of us in the class, seemed to get what we each wanted out of it.
Cooking Seafood With an Italian Point-of-View
Each night we'd arrive at ICA at around 5:00 p.m., change into our uniforms, and head to the stainless steel kitchen classroom to set up our work station. Like a maestro raising a baton, our instructor Chef Guido Magnaguagno would begin precisely at 5:30. For the next 5 hours, including a half-hour supper break that somehow always slipped back to 20 minutes, we'd watch, listen, cut, measure, weigh, and cook. On our feet the entire time, we'd leave each night well fed (we'd eat what we cooked and it was very good), physically exhausted, and even though we'd change out of our uniforms before heading home, I knew I rode the subway home rank with a perfume of pungent squid ink and raw fish (my apologies to my fellow passengers).
Chef Guido, born in the great seafood city of Venice and raised in Milan, has an impressive culinary resumé and he taught our class in a perfectly balanced combination of task master, coach, and keeper of the Italian food canon. He would effortlessly move back and forth between classic culinary technique, Italian seasonings and culinary traditions, and kitchen hygiene and food safety -- essential when handling something as perishable as fresh fish. In an unusual twist that added even more appeal to his expertise, Chef Guido is a former macrobiotic who still practices many of the healthy principles of macrobiotic cooking. He was also warm, charming, funny and motivating.
Technique, Ingredients and More Technique
In only fifteen hours, here's what we took on:
- Handling, cleaning and preparing round fish like branzino, flat fish like fluke, and all types of shellfish -- lobster, squid, clams, mussels, octopus and shrimp. This included learning how to gut and scale fish, how to butcher a lobster, filleting whole fish, opening oysters and clams, and cleaning squid, octopus and shrimp.
- Combining Italian flavorings and ingredients with seafood, including cooking with wine, tomatoes, pastas, and fresh herbs.
- Learning universal techniques for cooking seafood -- stewing, braising, deep frying, sautéing, steaming, and roasting fish whole.
We worked with exquisite (and expensive) ingredients -- including beautiful sushi grade tuna, silver and black whole branzinos, bags of clams and mussels, fat jumbo shrimp, lobsters, whole octopus, and whole squid still filled with their tiny sacs of ink. Side benefits to these recipes were lessons in making a simple tomato sauce, fish stock (called fish fumé), and vegetable stock. The kitchens were equipped with stacks of All-Clad cookware, trays of vegetables and every other ingredient we'd need for the recipes, plus boxes of tools we'd use alongside our own knives.
- Ostriche ripiene -- Stuffed Oysters
- Zuppa di pesce -- Fish Soup
- Cozze alla pescatora -- Steamed Mussels with Tomato
- Pesce in crosta di sale -- Whole Fish Roasted in a Salt Crust
- Fritto misto di pesce -- Mixed Fried Fish
- Crudo di pesce -- Raw Fish
- Tartara di tonno -- Tuna Tartare
- Aragosta alla diavola -- Spicy Lobster with Spaghetti
- Pesce al cartoccio -- Fish Cooked in Parchment Paper
- Baccalà con porri -- Salted Codfish with Leeks
Each night Chef Guido would follow the same format: he'd start by demonstrating a recipe along with the basic skills needed to handle the fish, e.g., filleting a whole fish. Then he'd send us to our work stations to do what he had just done, and then he'd move from station to station, correcting, encouraging, and sometimes making us re-do to get the skills right.
He did something else that made the course almost like two-classes-in-one: he constantly coached and corrected our knife skills, the most important lesson any home cook can learn from a professional.
The course materials included a uniform -- white chef's double-breasted jacket, black and white check pants, cotton neckerchief, and the ICA's signature royal blue apron. The other essential was a knife set that came in a carrying case and included a 9-inch chef's knife, 3-inch paring knife, 6-inch boning knife, 8-inch slicer, vegetable peeler and knife steel to keep the sharp edge of our knives honed.
The course book is useful with information on safety, how to best treat burns and cuts, tips for food handling and storage, and an inventory of what a basic kitchen needs when it comes to equipment and tools. But its best parts are the lessons and tips, complete with drawings and photographs -- it's easy to forget after only doing something once, like filleting your first fish, so the book is a handy record.
After 15 hours spent talking about, cooking and eating seafood, I must admit I was craving a steak. But my fear of fish seems to have finally ended. Thanks, Chef Guido. I raise a glass of fish fumé to you in salute.
Courses periodically given by ICA's Intensive Series:
- Fish & Shellfish
- Pizza & Gnocchi
Tuition for the 15-hour "Fish & Shellfish" was $795 (this includes the uniform, knife set and all materials). Discounts are offered if you have previously taken courses at either FCI or ICA and if you already own an approved FCI uniform.
If you have more time, there are longer ICA amateur courses in:
- Pasta, Pizza, Polenta and More
- Italian Cheese, Wine and Vegetables
- Italian Meat and Poultry
- Italian Pastries, Gelato and More
- Knife Skills, Deboning and Filleting