5. Consolation Cooking

fish-pancakes-ingredientsIn the hangover of the pie contest, I faced my reality. I had a mortgage to pay.

When I bought my apartment, I was making a lot more money than I was cooking at the charter high school down the street. That’s what they don’t tell you when you’re writing out the tuition check for culinary school: you will never make any money, there were paid holidays, no paid vacations, no 401k, no health insurance. Trying to figure out how to work enough to pay the bills was a job in itself.

With the dark cloud of bills hanging over my head, I readied myself for another shift at my side job at a fancy kitchenwares store — Pots et des Casseroles — for the holidays. In my pre-work routine, I checked my email and facebook, a I saw a post on my wall from a foodie friend in Charleston: “Thought you might be interested,” Eliza wrote. “I would go if I was there (and I may be there for the TK dinner).” She was referring to a book tour event for Thomas Keller at the Bristol. I tried to keep up with news on important (and not so important) chefs, but I wasn’t interested in this dinner.

To be honest, I was also slightly envious of how Eliza was doing professionally. Somehow she’d forged a career as a food writer even though she didn’t have a food background. It was something of a dream job of mine (though I really wanted to cook) and I hadn’t done much to make that happen. I always used the excuse of not having enough time. But with the pie contest over, I had plenty of time. I just filled it with a crappy job with a hefty discount.

I didn’t care much about being on time to Pots et des Casseroles, but I managed to arrive just under the buzzer. I was greeted by Elizabeth, my favorite sales associate. “How are you? You look wiped out. Late night?”

“No, actually. The pie contest was yesterday. I’m pied out.”

“Ohh..” she said dryly. “How’d you do?”

“I didn’t advance. That was probably my last contest.”

Savory-crepe“Ehhh,” she offered. “Don’t let that stop you. You just have to own it next year.”

“Yeah. Well. Yeah.”

Elizabeth was amazing. She had a strange affectation. She sounded disinterested in most things, but she was very passionate. She was a lover of all things food and she was a veritable kitchen encyclopedia. Conversations with her over food were endless and informative. I always learned something new from her.

I knew I wasn’t going to last long at that Pots et des Casseroles and the only way to make it worth my time was to take advantage of the discount. That day I started my list of must-haves before I quit.

The pasta attachment for a Kitchenaid mixer was at the top of my list; I went to Elizabeth for her opinion.

“I hear it’s great, I’ve had my Kitchenaid for 20 years, but I use the Atlas for pasta. I think the attachment is fast, but the Atlas is fun for parties.”

“I want fast. A hand crank is really unappealing to me.”

“Well, if you want to spend the money, go for it.”

I stifled my urge to buy the attachment that day and instead bought a set of chip-resistant glasses. Those were safe. Also, I didn’t have time to make homemade pasta.

I didn’t work there again for another week, but I fantasized about homemade raviolis the whole time.

Before I went in for my shift, I read the New York Times Style Section (for the food and Modern Love) and Eater Chicago.  When I opened Eater, there was a picture of Thomas Keller at his event at The Bristol. But it wasn’t just a picture: it was huge. Right there at the top of the front page. And sitting to his left — with no one in between — was Eliza. I filled with envy for her and disappointment with myself.

Fish-and-crepeWhen I went in to Pots et des Casseroles that day there was a new display next to the cash register. It was Thomas Keller’s book Bouchon Bakery Cookbook. I picked it up and thumbed through it. Actually, that’s not true; it was too big and beautiful to thumb through. It was more like a coffee table book than a cookbook. Every photograph was gorgeous and real enough that you wanted to lick it. It was like you were in the room where they were rolling out laminated dough or piping buttercream frosting. And if the pictures didn’t suck you in, the words would. If you started reading the hows and whys of baking, you couldn’t stop. It was packed with things you didn’t know you wanted to know. It was amazing.

As I was looking through it, Elizabeth strolled up. “That book is like porn for people like you and me.”

I looked up at her and responded, “I ache to have this.”

Every shift following that day, I fought with myself about buying it.

To ease my anxiety over the absence of Bouchon in my life, I turned to the one book of Thomas Keller’s that I have: The French Laundry Cookbook.

It wasn’t quite as beautiful as Bouchon, but it had to do. Also, it wasn’t really for the home-cook. Bouchon, wasn’t really for the home-baker, either, but it was more doable for me.

I picked the one recipe that sounded reasonable to me, but that it was a lobster dish (I couldn’t afford lobster) and it also contained carrots (I hated carrots), I completely rewrote the idea to suit me and my taste. Food is not unlike art and music. Most everything has been done, so we make it our own by borrowing from those we admire. I admired Thomas Keller, but I didn’t want to make his food, so I borrowed his ideas to feed my own.Fish-pancakes

I think he called it Lobster Pancakes, so I guess I can call this the Poor Man’s Fish Pancakes.

Fish filling:

  • ⅛ cup chopped chives
  • 1 tsp finely chopped shallots
  • 3 tb mascarpone – 3 tb
  • 2 oz. fish (I used Tilapia for example, but you can use whatever you want)
  • ⅓ cup vegetable stock
  • lemon juice
  • cooking sherry

Heat just enough butter to coat the pan. Place two filets of fish in the pan. Cook all the way through — on each side about two minutes. Remove from pan and set aside. Add a little bit of butter to the pan followed by the shallots. Saute until translucent. Remove from pan and set aside. Add vegetable stock to pan with a splash of sherry. Reduce until thick like a syrup making sure to scrape sides of pan occasionally. Set aside.

Break up fish with your hands (it’s very easy — it just flakes). Combine with 1 TB of the reduced vegetable stock, shallots, chives, and mascarpone. Cover and refrigerate until you’re ready to fill the crepes.


  • ⅓ cup flour
  • pinch salt
  • 1 egg
  • 4 oz. milk
  • 4 tsp melted butter – 4tsp
  • 2 tsp finely chopped chives – 2 tsp

Fish-pancakesCombine flour and salt. Whisk together eggs and milk. Pour into flour and whisk together. Whisk in butter. When it’s all combined, pour through a fine sieve. Stir in chives.

In a small saute pan, heat very small amount of butter over medium-high heat. Spoon one ounce or two tablespoons into pan — you must tilt the pan and roll your wrist so the batter coats the pan evenly and thinly. You must be very fast. They cook quick! Flip pancake.Set aside. Makes eight.


  • 1 bulb fennel,  thinly sliced
  • 1 finely sliced shallot
  • 1/2 bunch watercress
  • 1 TB olive oil
  • 1 TB lemon juice
  • salt to taste

Combine pinch of salt with fennel, shallots, olive oil and lemon juice set aside for a few minutes.

Tear off watercress leaves and add to other ingredients. Toss. Set aside.


  • 1 roasted red pepper*
  • 1 TB lemon juice
  • 2 TB olive oil
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream
  • 2 TB cold butter cut into pieces
  • salt to taste

fish-pancakesPuree pepper with oil and lemon juice. Pour through fine sieve. In a sauce pan, heat pureed pepper and reduce. When it’s thick, stir in cream. Reduce. Season to taste. Remove from heat. Stir in butter, one piece at a time. When all is melted and incorporated, return pepper to blender. Puree on high for a minute or two. Set aside.

Pre-heat oven to 350F.

For this, I use a silpat, but if you don’t have one, you can brush melted butter on a sheet pan.

On another surface, place the crepe nice side down. Spoon about a tablespoon (slightly more) of the fish filling in the middle of the crepe. Fold one side over, and then another and another until you have a little dumpling. Place dumpling, seam side down on sheet pan. Bake for about ten minutes or until dumplings are hot.

Fish-pancakesHow to plate it is up to you. Top the salad with the dumpling followed by the emulsion; spoon the emulsion on the plate and top it with the dumpling followed by the salad; keep them all separate. No matter how you do it, it’s delicious, I promise.

*To roast a pepper, place it under a pre-heated broiler. Turn occasionally until the entire pepper is black and blistered. Remove from broiler. Cover in plastic wrap. When it’s cooled, remove plastic wrap. The charred outer layer should come off easily to reveal beautiful, roasted flesh. Discard stem and seeds.


I forgot about my failure at the contest — my dumplings were a triumph for me, but I was still unsatisfied. I wouldn’t be satisfied until I could use Thomas Keller’s method to make croissants. I resolved to own that book.


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