Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Signatures: Confit of Petuna Ocean Trout (Tetsuya)

A change of tack. Rather than full length cookbook reviews, a series focusing on individual signature dishes. In short more cheffy stuff, less post-modernist bullshit. To start with, Sydney's Tetsuya Wakuda and his famous confit of ocean trout.

You say Ocean Trout, I say Tetsuya

Snail Porridge. Pork Buns. Black Cod with Miso.

Sydney chef Tetsuya Wakuda's Confit of Petuna Ocean Trout is one of those landmark dishes which has no point of reference apart from itself.

You say Black Cod, I say Nobu. You say Ocean Trout, I say Tetsuya.

And like many of these dishes its surprisingly straightforward. The recipe has been tweaked many times, but at its heart its a fillet of ocean trout, marinaded in herbs, olive and grapeseed oil and then cooked in the slowest possible oven until just warm. Its then sprinkled with finely chopped konbu and served with a simple shaved fennel salad.

The genius is taking rich, melting salmon trout to the point where it is just cooked, but looks raw. Barely firm but still fresh. The konbu (which also salts the dish) then gives a savoury hit, while the fennel adds a zesty crunch.

Like many great signatures, what's stunning is its simplicity. Barely three or four components on the plate. Less is most definitely more.

Memories of Salmony

Tetsuya himself admits that the inspiration wasn't his. It originally started as a confit salmon dish, from his time with the godfather of Sydney food, Tony Bilson (who has just ended a typically turbulent year by reopening his old stamping ground, the Berowra Waters Inn).

Actually confit salmon goes back even further. Pierre Koffmann (who hails from Gascony, the home of confit) prepared a similar dish at La Tante Claire back in the 1980s. The recipe features in his (recently reprinted) Memories of Gascony, where he says it was a dish his grandmother Camille used to cook with wild salmon from the Adour river.

Of course salmon confit differs from duck confit in a couple of ways. The meat is not salted, and the cooking is much gentler - briefer and for a much shorter time. Tetsuya then took the dish and did three more things with it. He replaced the duck fat for a lighter mix of olive and grapeseed oil, he cooked the fish at an even temperature so the colour did not change, and he swapped out the salmon for Petuna Ocean Trout.

Where's Petuna again?

For many years I thought the "Petuna" was a place or a breed of fish. It was only a couple of years ago I found out it was a person. Two in fact.

Peter and Una Rockcliff run Tasmania's biggest seafood supplier, an industrial operation which sells nearly AUD400m of fish a year. But they weren't always big. Peter used to be a rock-lobster fisherman, but struck gold when he pioneered aquaculture, first with roughy, then salmon in the 1980's and then the iconic ocean trout in 1991.

Ocean trout (salmon trout or sea trout in Europe) is exactly that - a giant, steelhead trout which has escaped into the sea. It looks very similar to salmon, but is little less fatty and a little fuller flavoured. In Europe the flesh is paler than salmon, but the Tasmanian variety has a vivid orange colour.

Now it seems strange that this dish uses farmed fish. After all aquaculture is a dirty word in European gastronomic circles. It's associated with cheap, flabby lice-ridden salmon which pollute sea lochs and wreck the environment. Salmon found in any high-end restaurant in London will be defiantly labelled Wild. Indeed when Tetsuya served his confit at the short-lived Mju, he used wild Scottish salmon rather than ocean trout.

Of course Tetsuya doesn't just get any old farmed fish - his fillets are hand-picked and filleted for him at Petuna's Devonport factory. But nonetheless I find it interesting that while Neil Perry bangs in his Rockpool Bar Grill book about only getting line-caught Ike-Jime killed fish, Tets quietly goes about preparing his signature dish with a factory-killed farmed product.

I think the point is that not all farmed fish is bad, but fish can be farmed badly.

The Recipe

Anyhow, back to the recipe (this is a cookbook blog after all). The definitive version is in Tetsuya's 2001 cookbook. As I said before, the cooking method is very simple; I've done it many times. After being marinaded, the oil-coated fillets are placed in an oven at its very lowest setting with the door propped open. This gently warms then until the fish firms up, but before it changes colour (about 40c on a probe thermometer is the right temp in my experience).

Catching this moment is the what makes the dish.

The genius of the method though is that the incredibly gentle cooking gives you lots of leeway to pull the fish at the right time. That's in contrast to most fish dishes where you often only have seconds before a pan-fried tranche is overdone (paper-thin sea-bass fillets, I'm looking at you). In essence its is a version of the low-temperature cooking so beloved of molecular gastronauts - all that's missing is the sous-vide bag.

Apart from (or rather, in addition to) the cooking, the rest of the dish is a walk in the park. Zap parsley, capers and oil in a blender for the sauce. Shave the fennel and toss with lemon for the salad.

A few more comments. Bear in mind the temperature of the dish (even Tetsuya describes it as "lukewarm") is not to everyone's taste. I've had dinner guests send this one back and ask for it to be cooked a bit more - needless to say they never got repeat invites! :-p. But I assume if you're reading this you wouldn't consort with such people.

Also if you want the full-fat restaurant dish bear in mind the version in the book has been slightly adapted. As far as I can tell the restaurant cooks whole sides of salmon, rather than individual portions. It also completely immerses them in the oil while being cooked (which makes more sense for a confit). Oven times are naturally more precise too - 50-55c for 25 minutes (which makes sense to me if you want to take the meat itself to c40c). None of this should be impossible for a reasonably-equipped home cook.

The Book

To finish a few works on the book itself. Tetsuya is a good book, maybe not a great one. It sits on my shelf with a bunch of other Haute Asian Fusion (HAF) volumes - the Nobu books, Alan Wong, Momofuku, Susar Lee, Ming Tsai etc. I'd rate it ahead of Wong, Susar and Ming but would take Momofuku and the original Nobu volume over it any day.

The book is mainly straight recipes. The introductory comments are relatively short. That's good and bad - I can do without the obligatory hagiography but it's always good to know more about a chef's background and where their cooking is coming from. The recipes are your standard HAF (although bear in mind its over a decade old - it would have been more revolutionary in its day). Lots of lightly-cooked fish and the occasional truffle. It's printed on a slight grungy matt paper, rather than gloss stock, which means the photos can look a bit muddy.

Apart from the Confit Ocean Trout dish I've taken a bizarre shine to the Duck Terrine dish (p118 - although it didn't work well the one time I tried it!), Grilled Fillet of Veal with Wasabi and Sea Urchin Butter (p136; trashy in the same way as Peter Gordon's Beef Pesto), and Roast Scampi with Tea and Scampi Oil (p98).

Other noteworthy points and inspirations: There is very little molecular influence in this book (unless you count the slow-cooked ocean trout), but a savoury sorbet does pop up in the Tartare of Marinated Scampi with Tomato and Pepper Sorbet (p46). The Cold Soup of Cauliflower and Caviar (p12) sounds like a riff on Joel Robuchon's famous Gelee de Caviar a la Creme de Chou Fleur. The Lobster Ravioli with Tomato and Basil Vinaigrette (p72) is very, very similar to Gordon Ramsay's signature Lobster Ravioli dish, although Tetsuya uses wonton wrappers rather than pasta. The desserts are unmemorable.

That's all.


  1. Fantastic piece!
    (and no sniffiness at us regional untermensch)

    you done this bagged & bathed?

    Sursur Lee is still a great looking book.

    Did get ex-Rouxite Justin Quek's 'Passion & Inspiration' a few years back? The most Frenchified but seem to think some Asian influence nestling somewhere in there.


  2. Just tried the duck terrine, but am disappointed with the results as it's very dry. I think I need a fatter cut of pork mince and less chicken. Liked the addition of orange zest, ginger powder and mirin so will keep tweaking

  3. Just tried the duck terrine, but am disappointed with the results as it's very dry. I think I need a fatter cut of pork mince and less chicken. Liked the addition of orange zest, ginger powder and mirin so will keep tweaking