Funny thing about fish: Everybody loves a great fillet in a restaurant or mussels in a bistro, but few of us cook fish at home with any confidence, thanks to so many efforts that end with the ugly mess of a halibut steak stuck to the skillet, disintegrating before it even hits the plate.
"Fish is not a pork chop," says chef David Kinch, owner of two-Michelin-star restaurant Manresa, in Silicon Valley. "Rightly or wrongly, it's perceived off the bat as intermediate cooking."
Kinch grew up surfing the Gulf Coast of Texas – "I was an oil brat," he says – and now lives near the beach in Santa Cruz, California, spending his free time longboarding, standup paddleboarding, or sailing with friends. Winner of the 2010 James Beard Award for Best Chef in America, Pacific region, he has become a foodie cult figure for his imaginative, fish-centric cuisine. He also makes regular transpacific trips to Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market, personally scouting out the freshest seafood on Earth. But the real strength of Kinch's approach lies in his mastery of precisely what the rest of us need to learn: the fundamental cooking methods applicable to every maritime meat.
"A few simple techniques make seafood so much more accessible," he says. "Once guys learn them, they won't hesitate to pick up a beautiful piece of fish."
Here, from Kinch and Las Vegas chef Rick Moonen, another seafood expert, is advice on buying fish, keeping it as fresh as possible, and cooking it. Thanks to their insights, you will forever interrogate your fishmonger like a pro, render skin crispy as a potato chip, poach crustaceans to perfection, and debone whole fish effortlessly. And finally, those tricky, delicate meats will become your go-to home-cooking staples. Time to get your sea legs.
A More Succulent Lobster
The classic approach to lobster – and pretty much every hard-shelled crab, crayfish, and even shrimp – is to drop it into boiling salted water. After 15 minutes, you just take the lobster out, crack open the shell, and pull out the meat. But this technique has two big shortcomings. One, different parts of the animal cook at different rates – meaning the tail overcooks by the time the claws are ready. Two, boiling water deeply infuses lobster with the taste of, well, water.
Kinch solves the first problem by killing the lobster with a knife, and then breaking it into pieces to cook separately. He solves the second by turning that water into court bouillon, a quick vegetable stock that infuses the lobster with extra flavor. The broth makes an excellent poaching medium for any sea creature, from hard-shell crabs to flaky fish fillets. Finally, he presents the lobster not with the traditional clarified butter but in a beautiful chilled salad.
For the court bouillon:
- 2 large yellow onions, 2 large leeks, and 2 large fennel bulbs, all roughly chopped
- 1 bunch parsley
- 2 sprigs thyme
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 lemon, halved
- 6 cloves garlic, smashed with skin on
- 2 cups white wine
For the salad:
- 1 orange
- 1 lemon
- 1 cup crème fraîche
- 2 cups cherry tomatoes
- 2 avocados
- mixed greens
Step One: Make the Court Bouillon
Place all bouillon ingredients in a large pot; fill with water, bring to a boil, and reduce to a simmer. Dip a finger quickly in and out of the water (yes, it can handle the heat), and lick it. It should be roughly as salty as seawater.
Step Two: Kill the Lobsters
Set one lobster facedown on a cutting board. Place the tip of a large, sharp knife at the back of its head, blade facing away from its body. Plunge the tip downward, clear through the head, bisecting the lobster's face. Next, grab hold of the lobster's tail and twist to remove it in a single motion. Do the same with each of the claws, twisting right where they attach to the lobster's body. Discard body. Repeat for second lobster.
Step Three: Prepare an Ice Bath
Fill a large bowl with equal parts ice and water. You will use this to cool the lobster parts as they exit the boiling water, stopping them from cooking further.
Step Four: Cook the Lobsters
Place the large claws, rubber band on, in the court bouillon. Simmer 4 minutes, and then remove to the bath. Place the small claws in the bouillon for 3 minutes, and then remove to the bath. Place the tails in the bouillon for 2 minutes, and then remove to the bath. Break the shells by rapping them with a hammer or the butt end of a knife. Remove the meat without tearing, so you have 6 large pieces.
Step Five: Prepare the Salad
Credit: Photograph by Peden + Munk
Halve the orange and lemon. Squeeze 2 tbsp of juice from each into crème fraîche; stir. Add salt to taste. Halve the tomatoes and avocados. Use a spoon to scoop the avocado from its shell; slice each half into long, thin pieces. On a platter, place several dollops of crème fraîche, about 1 tbsp each. Sprinkle 1 or 2 handfuls of tomatoes and greens on top, then layer chunks of lobster and avocado. Garnish with additional crème fraîche and orange segments.