SOME kitchen equipment is purchased to make a dish easier to create. Some dishes are created to justify the purchase of a piece of kitchen equipment. Such was the case with Iacopo Falai and his smoked trout consommé. The smoker came first.
''What got me really into smoking was a smoked banana at WD-50,'' Mr. Falai said, referring to the restaurant down the block from Falai, his 40-seat boîte. ''It was interesting,'' he said, ''and I went there and asked, 'Is there really a machine to smoke?' I'm young, so everything for me is a surprise. Then I bought one online.'' The challenge was what to do with it once he got it. The answer? Try everything and see what worked.
It went like this: salt, quail eggs, hazelnuts: yes; olive oil, not yet. ''It was a good idea but maybe I'm not perfecting it yet,'' he said as he peeled several fat Spanish onions. Of course, more typical candidates for smoking found their way into the machine, too. One of Mr. Falai's favorites is trout. He uses the flesh in a mousse for an amuse-bouche, but was perturbed to see that the head, tail and bones were tossed into the trash. So with chefly parsimony, he started saving them to make a smoke-accented consommé that tastes like the liquid version of something a New Yorker might think to pair with a bialy.
To an Italian schooled in haute cuisine restaurants in France and Italy, however, sweet onion confit, ramps and steamed morsels of sole seemed like more apropos accompaniments. To that end he was slivering the onions for the confit using another of his favorite machines, an outsized, rather fierce-looking electric meat slicer -- because, he said without irony, ''mandolines, they are scary.''
Slicing done, he turned to the stove to caramelize sugar. He set a heavy sauté pan over high heat and, when it was quite hot, sprinkled a thin layer of sugar over the bottom. The moment the granules hit the hot iron, they melted into golden beads. That was the time to add the onions so they would absorb the caramel, he said. Next he deglazed the pan with some onion juice that he made in a juicer. (A blender would work for this task.) Although most onion confit recipes call for vinegar to balance the sweetness of the caramel, Mr. Falai preferred the acid tang of onion juice. ''It keeps the flavors purely in the onion family,'' he said as he tied thyme sprigs into a little bundle and added it to the pot.
As the onions bubbled down to an amber-colored jam, he checked that the fish broth he had set on the stove earlier that morning remained at a constant simmer, without boiling. In the pot, carrots, leeks, celery, herbs and his house-smoked trout gave up their juices to the consommé cause. A crystal clear consommé, Mr. Falai demonstrated, entails many steps to get rid of proteins that may cloud it. After the initial lengthy, gentle simmer, he strained out the vegetables and bones. Then there was more simmering and more straining as he ridded the liquid of accumulated scum. Next it was time for clarifying, which involved beating egg whites with a crushed tomato, boiling that mixture in the broth until it solidified into a frothy cap, and lifting it off with a slotted spoon. (The egg white mixture captures any stray particles too fine for the sieve, and the tomato adds color.) Finally the broth is strained yet again, this time through a coffee filter. ''It's too bad they don't have a machine to do this because it takes forever,'' Mr. Falai said.
The resulting broth, however, was indeed as limpid as chamomile tea and about the same color. The flavor was saline, smoky and intense. It was a perfect foil to the rich, melting sweetness of the onion confit. To finish the dish, Mr. Falai briefly sautéed the ramps in canola oil and steamed diminutive diamonds of sole over a bit of the trout consommé.
Using foot-long stainless steel tweezers from a surgical supply store, Mr. Falai arranged each component just so: a pile of onion confit topped by a tidbit of sole and a few floppy ramps. He carefully ladled the broth around his construction. And then we ate, a pleasurable task ideally suited to the human machine.
Steamed Sole with Smoked Trout Consommé Adapted from Iacopo Falai
Time: 2 1/2 hours
For the onion confit:
2 1/2 Spanish onions, 1 diced, 1 1/2 thinly sliced
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
3 sprigs fresh thyme, tied with kitchen string
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the consommé:
1 8-ounce whole smoked trout
1 leek, trimmed and cleaned
1 small carrot, peeled and sliced
1 stalk celery, sliced
1/2 fennel bulb, trimmed and sliced
2 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
2 bay leaves
2 juniper berries
1 teaspoon kosher salt
4 egg whites
1 plum tomato, roughly chopped and crushed
For the sole:
1 8-ounce sole fillet, cut into 3-inch by 1-inch pieces
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 bunch ramps, trimmed and cleaned
1. To prepare confit, purée diced onion and 1/2 cup water in blender. Strain liquid through a sieve into a bowl.
2. Put a large sauté pan over high heat until very hot. Sprinkle sugar evenly over pan. As soon as it melts and begins to turn gold, add sliced onions. Reduce heat and stir until onions are golden, about 5 minutes.
3. Deglaze pan with onion juice and olive oil. Add thyme, salt and pepper. Cut parchment paper to fit pan, making a small hole in the center to let steam escape. Place parchment on top of onions and simmer over medium-low heat until juice evaporates and onions turn amber, about 20 minutes. Discard thyme before serving.
4. To prepare consommé, remove trout skin and discard. Remove most of the trout meat and reserve for other use; leave some meat on bone.
5. In a medium pot over medium-high heat, combine leek, carrot, celery, fennel and garlic. Sauté for 3 minutes. Pour in 6 cups water and add bay leaves, juniper berries, salt and trout bones. Bring to bare simmer and cook over low heat for 45 minutes. Strain through a fine mesh sieve. Return broth to pot and simmer over medium heat for 15 minutes. Strain again.
6. In a small bowl, whisk together egg whites and tomato. Return broth to pot over medium heat. Add egg mixture and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Immediately reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes (egg mixture should gradually form a crust on surface of broth). Remove crust with slotted spoon and discard.
7. Put a coffee filter inside a sieve over a bowl. Strain broth through filter.
8. To prepare sole, rinse fish and pat dry. Season with salt and pepper. In a pot, bring consommé to a simmer. Set a steamer basket inside pot above consommé. Arrange fish in steamer, cover and steam until fish is opaque and just cooked through, 3 to 5 minutes.
9. Meanwhile, heat canola oil in a medium pan over medium-high heat. Add ramps and a pinch of salt and pepper and sauté until bulbs are golden, 1 to 2 minutes.
10. To serve, spoon a little confit in serving bowls. Arrange fish pieces on top. Spoon a little consommé around fish. Garnish with ramps.
Yield: 4 to 6 appetizer servings.