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Friendship and French-Inspired Fare

March 8, 2012

I have been doing a great deal of thinking recently, reflecting on the past while trying to carve out that path through the wilderness toward integrating my personal history in to my future.  The last year has been a difficult one, emotionally, due to loss and grief on the one hand, and stress and frustration on the other.  In short, I have been feeling nostalgic for “home” a lot recently.  Sometimes, home means Maine; other times it means France; yet no matter the source of my culinary inspiration, escaping to the kitchen to prepare a nice meal is good therapy, helping me to achieve my goal of harmoniously living in the here-and-now.

Gregory and I have extended a cordial invitation to a new friend and her husband to dine at our place some evening soon, provided leaving the kids with the sitter won’t leave them feeling devastated!  In as much an attempt to say thank you for all that she has done for us recently as an opening for continued friendship, I am offering up this little French-inspired meal just in time for Spring and this season of renewal.

I thought perhaps that I would start the meal with one of my favorite soups.  While the temps are on the rise right now, they just as often slip back to the chill of winter overnight, making a warm soup a welcomed addition to any meal still.  I’ve already written of this elixir before, so will let you reread that article if you care to make the soup yourself.

Ouverture

Soupe aux Poireaux

Green Velvet Soup

(A hearty blended vegetable soup made from leeks, carrots, potatoes, zucchini, squash, legumes, and tomatoes, gently scented with « herbes de Provence », consisting of oregano, marjoram, thyme, basil, sage, savory, rosemary and lavender flowers, sometimes garnished with a dollop of crème fraîche)

Sommelier recommendation:  Côtes du Rhône

My dear friend, Andrée Harivel, of Courseulles-sur-Mer, Normandy, is a particularly gifted cook and was the one to teach me how to cook with leeks, which are not at all a part of the cooking vernacular of Maine.  Dédée, as her friends and family call her, rivals her sister, Thérèse, in the kitchen, though it is understood in the family that Thérèse is really the one who has more of the patience to create those wonderfully complex French flavors in dishes such as rillettes de maquereau, fresh vegetable pâtés, liver mousses and more.  Dédée used to quote her sister when making fish in a white sauce, as I am proposing here.  “Ce n’est pas difficile à faire; c’est difficile à réussir!”  (“Oh, this dish isn’t at all difficult to make, it is just difficult to succeed!”)  It just isn’t the kind of recipe that can be rushed, which isn’t a bad thing, mind you, because when you taste the results you will wonder why anyone would want to go quickly through the steps.  Of course if you happen to be traveling through Dédée’s sea side village, you could always make a stop by chef Thierry Bossey’s restaurant, La Crémaillère, at 23, avenue de la Combattante.   Described as being located “face à la mer les pieds dans l’eau” (overlooking the ocean with its feet in the water), this charming restaurant overlooks the landing beach and offers a delicious menu of fish and sea food dishes.

Entrée

Poisson Blanc à la Normande, parfumé au Calvados

Normand White Fish in a Calvados Béchamel

(Shivered white fish, often a haddock or tilapia or other substantial meat fish, in a béchamel sauce, infused with Calvados, a Norman apple brandy, and a light touch of cheese)

Riz Dulcet à l’Homard de Maine

Maine Lobster Dulcet Rice

(Gently pleasant basmati rice steamed in Maine lobster liqueur)

Salade de Mesclun avec Vinaigrette au Citron

Microgreens Salad with Lemon Vinaigrette

(Substituting lemon juice for the acid of a traditional vinaigrette allows the fresh natural flavors of the microgreens really somersault on the palate)

Sommelier recommendation:  Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc

 Part of the fun of making a fish dish like this, at least when one is close to the ocean as Dédée is, living on what is referred to as Juno Beach since the D-Day Landings in 1944, is heading to the open air market to purchase just the right portion.  The fish monger in her town is a pleasant man of “un certain âge”, with red in his cheeks and a filet knife perpetually by his side.  The catch of the day, just taken off the pêcheur’s boat, is laid out on the marble top, just waiting for the willing buyer to happen by, stepping up to pick out a nice piece as the scales of the fish shimmer in the afternoon sun.  There will be fish of all shapes and sizes on display, from “Bar”, a fish taken in agitated waters of the ocean, resembling an eel of sorts, with very few annoying little bones to pick out during the course of the meal.  You’ll also find some “Barbue”, which isn’t at all a pretty fish, but plentifully captured in calm waters.  Dédée’s choice was most often a fine looking “Cabillaud”, whose size varies from a foot to three feet in length.  It has a delicate white meat and is perfect for this dish.  (When dried and salted, this fish is known as “morue”.)  A “Daurade”, another white fish which is a bit more expensive, is also an excellent meal.

One also finds at the fish monger’s poissonerie, fresh calamars, and “Colin” (also known as “merlu”) which is most often sold fileted because of its firm white flesh—making it a perfect choice for breading at a fish fry.  “Lotte” will be sold there too, but already worked on by the monger; it is such an ugly fish when freshly caught that it scares off potential buyers, despite is delicious meat.  “Soles”, an oval-shaped fish, quite flat, look back at you one eye at a time; and the triangular “Turbot” has a rather rigid brown skin which the monger will help you separate from the meat.

A good fish monger will know how to cut the fish to the size that you want it.  Just tell him or her how many people will be served and the monger will offer up just the right amount.  He or she will also run his knife over the skin, scaling it for you so as to save you the time and mess when you get home.

“Oh, don’t buy one that looks like that,” says Dédée as she points to one where the eyes seem just a bit too glassy, “That one has been out of the water just a bit too long!”  Even with a good fish monger, you still have to be a bit careful.

Of course, living in the Midwest, it is very difficult to find good fish.  It isn’t the coast of France or Maine, and all ocean-caught fish here will have that been-out-of-the-water-just-a-bit-too-long look to it, so I often prefer to buy a nice haddock, cod, or other frozen fish.  You just have to handle it right so that you don’t get that grainy texture of a fish which was too quickly cooked after having been in the freezer.

Fish Preparation:

 With any ocean fish, it is important to remember that the meat is used to being in the cool waters of the deep sea, not the hot waters of a full boil.  Getting the quart or so of water in which to cook the fish just hot enough to make the fish “frissoner” (shiver) is what you are aiming for essentially.  The water will be just hot enough where if it gets any hotter you will see the bubbles boil up from the bottom.  You are looking to poach the fish more than boil all the goodness out of it.  Be gentle.  Be rewarded.

To give the fish a bit of flavor during poaching, you will want to start with a “Court Bouillon for Fish”.  It isn’t a complicated step but does involve a nice mirepoix, a combination of chopped carrots, celery and onions used to add flavor and aroma to stocks, sauces, soups and other foods. (The proportions by weight for making mirepoix are 50% onions, 25% carrots and 25% celery.)  To the mirepoix, where you can substitute shallots for onions, as Dédée most often does, you add a nice bay leaf, some fresh parsley, and perhaps some herbes de Provence (described in the Green Velvet soup recipe).  If you are serving white wine with the meal later, adding a splash of that to the cooking broth helps to tie the flavors of the stove and table nicely together.  Gray sea salt and freshly cracked pepper to taste.

Once you have let the court bouillon ingredients assembled, cook together for a bit, add the pieces of fish and let gently simmer until the meat is done, but not overcooked.  If the fish had previously been frozen, it will take a bit longer, but don’t try to rush it or the fish will take on a particularly mealy texture.

Sauce Preparation:

While the fish is cooking, it is also the time to start to make the sauce for the fish.  I will propose a couple of different variations here.

Dédée’s sister, Jeanine, let me copy her Mom’s Basic Fish Sauce Recipe, and it is very tasty, and quite simple.  Any recipe that has survived a couple of generations of French cooks has to be good, right?  Jeanine’s Mom started by chopping a good heaping tablespoon of chopped parsley (flat leaf), and mincing a couple of shallot onions.  She would put the shallots in to a sauté pan along with a couple tablespoons of butter (the real stuff), reserving the parsley until last.  Melt the butter and cook the shallots until tender, but not letting the butter brown too much.  As a thickener, she would add a potato starch or corn starch (sold in France as Maizena), about a teaspoon full, and cook just a bit to get that fresh starchy flavor out of the mixture.  She would then clarify the mixture with the bouillon taken from the cooking fish, stirring vigorously and adding the liquid slowly so as to avoid lumps which are unsightly and not terribly tasty.  As the sauce got to the right consistency, like a gravy where if you put in a spoon and haul it out, when you run your finger across the back of the spoon, it will leave a trail, but not be so thick that the finger pulls away from the spoon with a glob attached, she added the parsley which flavored the sauce so nicely.

I personally like to make the sauce a bit more in the Béchamel style than Thérèse’s mom did.  For that, I start by taking about 2 to 3 tablespoons of butter and melting it in my sauté pan.  From the melted butter, I make a roux by adding flour and cooking it about two minutes.  That is to say that to the butter I add an amount of flour equal to the amount of butter I started with, so in this case 2 to 3 tablespoons.  Add the flour all at once and mix it well with a wooden spoon or a whisk.  Cook for a couple of minutes, being careful not to heat too much and brown the roux, which will spoil the nice white color of your eventual sauce.  (If you let it brown too long, it will make for a delicious étouffé or brown sauce (like in a Louisiana gumbo), but will no longer suit your needs for a béchamel or vélouté.)

Very slowly add some of the court bouillon scented water from the fish to the roux mixture.  Whisk or stir with a wooden spoon plentifully to get to a nice creamy texture.  Add in small doses more of the liquid and continue to stir to avoid ugly lumps.  When the sauce gets to be nice and smooth, I often add some of the white wine that will be served a bit later in the meal, some milk and some white cheese like a mozzarella or Monterey jack—nothing that will color the sauce too much.  At the very end, I add a few tablespoons of Calvados, an apple brandy from Normandy, which just brings the flavors of “home” to the dish.  I have long believed that if it grows together, it goes together in cooking, and the apples of Normandy and the fish taken from the English Channel make great partners.  I also add at the end, some chopped parsley just like Dédée’s mom used to do.

Rice Preparation:

I grew up in Maine in a household where nothing went to waste.  My parents never threw anything away.  Nothing, and that means that when my father passes on, there will be a monumental task ahead of me to clean all that stuff out!  In the spirit of our state creed, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without!”, I also like to take full advantage of every part of a Maine lobster when I have the chance to serve them.

One nice cooking trick that I have used over the years is to save the water in which the lobsters I serve are steamed.  As the lobster cooks in the steam, it releases some of its essence, the liquid hidden inside the shell, which is called a liqueur.  This “lobster water” as I call it makes for a sensational stock for soups and stews as well as stock for flavoring rice and other dishes.

For this meal, I like to use some of this lobster water in the preparation of my fish as well as the rice, to make the dishes more harmonious.  In the place of plain water for the fish’s court bouillon, I use the lobster liqueur.  Likewise, I use the stock to cook the rice in, which makes for a marvelously scented kitchen.

While you can certainly cook rice on the stove top in a nice and traditional fashion, I have found in recent years that the rice turns out beautifully when prepared in a rice cooker/steamer.  The grains of rice become less sticky and remain separated and fluffy in a rice cooker more than in a stove top preparation.  I also like to use a basmati rice because of its long grains which get longer as they absorb water as opposed to an American long grain rice, which is considerably more starchy.  The basmati rice also has nice flavor overtones which a white rice traditionally does, and I appreciate that subtlety.

Serving Suggestion:

This meal is best served nice and hot.  Over a bed of fluffy rice cooked in the Maine lobster liqueur, place the fish and top with the béchamel sauce.  Garnish with some fresh chopped parsley for flavor and color.  A magnificent meal.

Déssert

Sorbet

Thé/Café

Sorbet offered with a choice of a variety of teas or coffee

Sommelier recommendation:  Brandy or a fortified wine, like a nice Sherry or Port, as a nice digestif.

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