For the past two weeks, I’ve been taking a class on garde manger, which is basically the kitchen station that produces charcuterie, salads, and other foods that are typically served cold. In a hotel or banquet-style operation, garde manger also includes the production of hors d’œuvres and canapés, centerpieces, ice carvings, and sandwiches. It’s a station that can put out some stunning food with some equally stunning food costs. Charcuterie used to get a bad rap because it traditionally makes use of leftovers and scraps, bits that get left behind. And it’s not like proponents of charcuterie help themselves by employing terms like “forcemeat” or “meat batter,” which make me wince a little bit. But I think the common conception of it as questionable, low-grade mystery meat is shifting radically, especially due to the restaurant industry. Done right, charcuterie not only packs flavor and value, but the same level of quality and wholesomeness as any other product.
I heart charcuterie too, because to me it truly epitomizes the art of artisanal cooking. It’s a craft that has been perfected over thousands of years; sausages were being made as early as 8th or 9th century B.C., as evidenced by the reference in Homer’s The Odyssey: “Two paunches lie of goats here on the fire,/Which fill’d with fat and blood we set apart for supper…” The sausage was to be awarded to the victor of a fight between Odysseus and Irus, another of Penelope’s suitors: one phallic trophy, indeed. At the same time, it’s a beautifully blank canvas, and I think charcuterie is one of the hottest trends in food today not only for economic reasons, but because it speaks to a cook’s creativity and artistic side. Chefs are taking the concept in both traditional and unconventional directions, often simultaneously, and that’s the kind of cooking that really excites me on a personal level.
My group chose to do a salmon platter for our garde manger practical. Instead of limiting ourselves to the assigned dishes, we challenged ourselves to produce something special, and I’m really proud of what we accomplished.
One thing we wanted to do was use more of the animal than just its “prime” parts, the fillets. If you know me, you probably know I LOVE LOVE LOVE salmon head meat. As a child, my favorite part used to be the eyes, which I would pop into my mouth, cartilage, gelatinous eye boogers, and all, sucking away until all that remained was the little white ball at the center. I made it my mission to not reveal that little white ball until it was absolutely pristine. While I’m ashamed to say I now battle my adult inhibitions when it comes to noshing on fish eyes, I will fight to the death over the collar meat. And everyone knows the cheeks are the best part of the animal, hands down.
I’ve thought of making a sort of terrine from salmon head meat in the past, and I knew I was on the right track when I saw a similar concept from Ideas in Food. I took their lead, brining and steaming the whole fish head as suggested, before picking it apart and seasoning the meat with s&p, cayenne, garlic powder, and white truffle oil, and stretched it with some equally delicious belly meat. It tasted pretty amazing right then, and it took a lot of restraint to remove myself from the bowl. I pressed this mixture into a mold and let it set overnight, during which the flavors deepened and the natural gelatin from the fish’s head created its own beautiful matrix. The next day, I savored the anticipation of slicing the head cheese, saving it for the last possible moment. The result was astonishing, all the more for the simplicity of the preparation. It was plated in 1-inch cubes garnished with chives and skin cracklings, and while it was a supermodel on the platter, texture and flavor stole the show. To aptly convey them, I would do best to quote from the creative and very literary geniuses at Ideas in Food, who spoke: “The fish was silky and rich with a savory flavor that, in spite of the various seasonings, spoke deeply of silvery fish and cold waters.”