Sunday, October 25, 2009

Whole Roasted Fish Basquaise (FINALLY)

Yup, I've been teasing you all for weeks now, promising but not delivering whole roasted fish. But apparently this weekend was the time... the stars aligned, the fishmonger delivered his bounty, and I have for you a Whole Roasted Fish Basquaise. Huzzah!


Now I like whole fish a lot. I know two Thai restaurants, one near my house and one near my office, that serve incredible whole fish dishes, so I'm no stranger to how good the stuff is, or how to eat it (eat the skin, scrape the yummy meat from the bone with a fork). But I have never actually made it before, so it's a new and different kitchen adventure for me. And imagine my shock and horror as, while walking to the store to pick up the fish, I ask Husband J whether he is excited for dinner tonight and he says "well, I don't really like fish that much." OH MY GOD!!! My biggest fan and he doesn't like fish that much? WHAT WILL HAPPEN?

Will I step up my game and make a fish dish that Husband J will like?

Will I man up and eat meat from the head?

And will I, as Husband J keeps asking, eat the eyeball?

Only time will tell folks. Come with me on my whole fish journey!

(I need some good intro music, like Carl Sagan.)

So, anything "Basquaise," is going to have a few basic elements to it (at least in the Les Halles Cookbook). Green and red bell peppers, white wine, garlic, onions and parsley are common ingredients in whole fish Basquaise, moules Basquaise, and poulet Basquaise. And let me say, all of these ingredients together are freaking fantastic. And another weird thing about these dishes... no butter, just olive oil, since really the recipes are more Spanish than French. (It's a nice break really, though I used my fair share of butter making some pear and sweet potato hand pies for the coming week.)

So let's get started. First, potatoes go into the pot and boil for 10 minutes, until just tender. Then, the red and green peppers and an onion get sauteed in a roasting pan in some olive oil, with garlic and thyme leaves tossed in after a few minutes.

Next, add white wine and chicken stock to the veggies and bring to a boil. Meanwhile, salt and pepper the outside and inside of the fish. The fish and potato wedges go into the roasting pan, and the pan into a 400 degree oven for half an hour.

The house began to smell really wonderful by this time--not fishy, but that wonderful mix of onion, garlic and herbs with wine and chicken broth with the nice meaty fish in the background.

Once the fish has roasted, it comes out of the pan and onto a baking sheet, and under a high broiler for a few minutes for the skin to crisp a bit. Then stir the lemon into the sauce, give it a bit of heat, and pour over the fish on a serving platter.

The verdict? Well in my opinion it was absolutely delicious. The sauce was really amazing, and we used slices of bread to mop it up. The fish was really perfect, very tender and juicy, not dry at all. It really rans up with one of the best whole fishes I've eaten.

And what about Husband J who doesn't much like fish? He says "It was good. It was a tasty fish." Even though he doesn't really like fish.

And then the final question I know you are all thinking... did she make like Tony and eat the eyeball?

Um, no. I'll eat a heart, which is a muscle, but a jelly organ like an eyeball is pushing it. Husband J teased me by forking one of the eyeballs up out of the socket, but it was so gelatinous and horrible that he dropped the fork immediately. That was the end of that. I did eat the cheeks though, and though the meat was very nice and tender, I didn't think it was incredibly special. But overall, it was lovely.


Lessons learned: Tony is right, fish does taste better on the bone. Sometimes a break from butter is pretty nice.

Next Week: Tough to say again... I may need to make a concerted effort to get those veal bones for stock.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Mushroom Soup

Yup, I crapped out on the whole fish again this week. Last time it was because I decided to make the wholly more interesting coeur de porc, but this wee I have a much lamer excuse... actually, the excuse is three-fold: socializing, weather, and exercise.

Wait, what?

Ok, I'll explain... we got invited to a party on Sunday night, which is great, as I love parties, and the host promised CASSOULET! Woo hoo! So I decided to make fish on Saturday. Then weather happened. Saturday was the coldest, greyest, gloomiest day of this cloudy, grey, gloomy week, so I decided to stay in bed and eat leftover takeout and frozen pizza. Then exercise... on Sunday I went to yoga class first thing in the morning, and the thing about yoga class is, it decreases my appetite by about 50-75% (weird, I know since most exercise makes me ravenous). So I didn't want whole fish for lunch. I went with a great sounding light meal for fall, though--mushroom soup.

Now I know you all have had that horrible Campbells cream of mushroom soup in pretty much every horrible casserole your mom ever made in the 1980s (I am looking at YOU beef stroganoff, and YOU TOO green beans with canned fried onions on top!). I have no idea who in their right mind would actually eat cream of mushroom soup as a soup, instead of as a weird binding agent for grey beef and egg noodles. But fortunately, this mushroom soup has no cream, but instead homemade chicken stock and sherry.

I started out with a mix of oyster, shitaake and cremini mushrooms, and also found some dried morels in the corner of the whole foods. Husband J loves morels, ever since we had them on a sausage, ramp and morel pizza. Once at the farmer's market he saw morels and started running over to the stand... but when he got close enough to see the price tag, he ran just as fast in the opposite direction. So, we don't eat a lot of morels, but the dried ones are slightly less pricey, so I decided that mushroom soup was a good enough excuse to get some.

Mushrooms waiting to be souped. The ones in the black bowl are the morels. They look... um... not delicious. But they were.

The soup itself was incredibly easy to make. Just sweat a thinly sliced onion in some butter...

Then add the mushrooms and more butter to the pot, and cook for 8 minutes.

Next, add the chicken stock and a sprig of parsley, bring to a boil, and simmer for 1 hour.

After the hour is up, it's time to puree. Once again Tony gives a dire warning to us to make sure to hold all of our weight down on the blender to save ourselves from the inevitable splatter of hot mushroom puree. And once again, I laugh in the face of splatter with my stick blender.

Once blended, season with salt, pepper, and stir in a little sherry. Since it's Sunday, and DC frowns upon the posibility of the heathen hoards getting trashed while the good teetotallers go to church, there was no sherry to be had. Husband J came to the rescue by running to the only wine shop open on Sundays and found a bottle of sweet bourdeaux. Perfect. Two shots of the bourdeaux got swirled into the soup, and lunch was ready to go.

And the result? Seriously, the best soup ever. Better than the vichyssoise, better than soupe au pistou, better than she-crab with sherry even! (I didn't make she-crab soup with sherry, I just like it.) Dignity barely prevented Husband J and I from lifting the soup bowls to our faces and licking them clean.

We had a ton left for the rest of the week too, which is great, as Tony promises that this soup gets better with time (it's true). This is definitely something to make again, and soon.

Lessons Learned: Sometimes the simplest things to make are the most delicious. But get your sherry on Saturday. Dried morels are almost as good as fresh.

Next week: Man, I wish I knew. Possibly I'll try for the fish again, or something with delicious red meat... mmm.

The cassoulet, by the way, was excellent, but I'm feeling a bit nervous about making it myself. That's a TON of food for one thing, and it's all simmering meats. Delicious but I must have eaten a portion about the size of a cigarette packet and didn't eat anything until 8:00 pm the next day it was that filling. Remind me to serve 20 people with a thimblefull of cassoulet each.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Frisée aux Lardons; Coquilles Saint-Jaques with Champagne

In my excitement for having braved the pig's heart a few weeks back, I sent my blog around to a couple of friends. Friend S, an out of town student who I hadn't seen in an age, came in to town this weekend, so of course I had to invite him over for another culinary experiment. The catch? He's been diagnosed as celiac, so no gluten allowed. After perusing the recipes in my book, I decided on bacon salad, or frisée aux lardons, and coquilles saint-jacques with champagne, that is, sea scallops in champagne sauce. No gluten there, except the optional croutons spread with roquefort that go with the salad. Also, the champagne sauce attracted me as having only half a cup of actual champagne in the sauce... meaning the rest is for drinking (yesssss).

I'd been eyeing the big, fat, meaty sea scallops that they have at whole foods, and pounced on them this morning. All I have to say is MAN those things are pricey. But I looove scallops, so they are oh so worth it for the indulgence. I also went to my favorite pork vendor, Cedarbrook Farms, for their delicious bacon for the salad. One thing to note about this bacon is that I think it's probably true to the way slab bacon probably should taste in a fris
ée aux lardons--not too salty, not processed, just very porky, meaty and delicious. Husband J claims it tastes like jerky, and I take his word for it, never having had jerky ever. (Am I missing out on this?)

First, I clarified some butter for frying the scallops. Clarified butter is tougher than it looks, in my opinion. You have to first melt the butter to the point where it separates, then scoop out the foam on top, and then pour off the liquid leaving the rest of the solids at the bottom of the pot. I was only moderately successful.

C is for clarified butter... it's clear enough for me.

Anyway, the time for dinner drew near on Sunday evening. I started out with the salad. Now, the recipe in the book calls for chicken liver vinaigrette, but alas, my livers were not in tip top shape, and I was a little suspicious about how fatty a liver vinaigrette would be in a (let's repeat) bacon salad. So I made the executive call that a plain vinaigrette would do, and set about making the same one that I made for the salade niçoise (red wine vinegar, olive oil, stirred with a clove of garlic).

Vinaigrette and shallots standing by for the salad.

Next comes bacon. The recipe called for blanching the bacon by boiling it, and then frying it afterwards. This is a little better than the rillettes, which were all boiled, but I still cast a suspicious eye upon the boiling of bacon.

It's just so wrong.

Frying makes it so right.

While the bacon fried, I started on the sauce for the scallops. This involves shallot sauteed in butter, then fish sauce and cream, and reduced by about half to create a thick, fishy, creamy sauce. Full disclosure--I didn't have the time or the ability to make fish stock, but found some frozen stock in the Whole Foods seafood section. Am I going to hell? Probably. But it was pretty tasty and looked house-made if not home-made, so we're just going to go with it for now. The sauce went on to warm while I waited for the guests to arrive. The featured guests tonight were the aforementioned Friend S, and an in-town friend, Friend T, who brought her lovely husband... uh, J.

Anyway, while waiting, I patted the scallops dry and set them out. Aren't they gorgeous?

Husband J calls them "sea pillows."

When the guests arrived, we shared the remaining champagne and some pate, crackers and chips. Then it was time to cook the scallops. I melted the clarified butter, and set the fluffy monsters out in a ring. Three minutes on each side led to a lovely golden color on their tops and bottoms.

Once the scallops were finished and keeping warm on a plate, it was time to finish up the sauce. I deglazed the scallop pan with the champagne, reduced it, then added the cream sauce and a knob of butter. The result was a fragrant fat-infused cream sauce... seriously you could gain weight just by smelling the stuff. It came off the eat, and some lemon juice and chives finished off the whole deal. I served the salad on top of toasts smeared with roquefort, and the scallops in a bowl covered in delicious sauce.


And tasty, tasty scallops.

Well it shouldn't be too much of a surprise that this was another huge success. I mean, you can't dole out fatty scallops smothered in cream and butter and have unhappy guests, especially when you gave them the leftover champagne first. Everyone scraped their plates clean--Friend T even asked for (and received) a spoon to lap up the rest of the sauce in her bowl. (The only reason she didn't slurp it up was because we didn't have any straws!) I encourage plate licking, but I suppose dignity got in the way tonight. Maybe next time.

Husband J (my Husband J, not T's) decided that this was hands down the best meal I'd made from the Les Halles Cookbook so far, and he's had them all, so that's quite impressive. I was really pleased with how well the salad and the scallops went together, too, and glad that I'd decided to forego the liver vinaigrette which would have been too much.

Oh, and dessert ended up being a mix of sorbets and gelatos, since I didn't have the time or inclination to make dessert. But the lighter, cold dessert again was a good compliment to the meal, so it all worked out in the end.

Lessons learned: You really just can't go wrong with scallops. Bacon salad tastes just as good with regular vinaigrette, especially when the rest of the meal is a saturated fatfest. Whole Foods fish stock tastes pretty freaking good.

Next week: Happy day... I saw whole snappers at the whole foods. We're having whole roasted fish Basquaise!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Poulet au Pot

Phew, what a refreshing break! Thanks everyone for being patient, and coming back to read some more.

After the rather exotic coeur du porc last time, I decided to go with something a good deal more familiar and homey, and what better than poulet au pot--that is, chicken-in-a-pot?

Poulet au pot, as I discovered from the magic that is google, is a recipe that dates back over 500 years, and is a Sunday Staple in the French countryside. It's basically a stuffed chicken stewed in a pot with veggies, and served with crunchy cornichons, salt and mustard in its own broth. The internets even report that Henry IV declared that every French family ought to be able to have poulet au pot once a week, the start I suppose of that great political promise "a chicken in every pot."

I made sure to wake up extremely early on Sunday, so to take the best advantage of the farmer's market's bounty (particularly the whole chickens from Smith Meadows Farms, which are snapped up very quickly in the mornings). I got there so early, actually, that I had half an hour before the "starting bell" and had to grab a coffee at (uch) Starbucks to bide my time. It turned out to work well, because I was able to scope out which stands had the veggies I needed for the stew, and could map out the best route through the market in order to maximize my take. Farmer's market strategies... I don't know whether that's uperyuppie or megahousefrau.

I stopped first at Smith Meadows and asked for the biggest chicken they had (Tony's recipe calls for a 6 pounder; the biggest I could get was 5 lbs) and a pound of chicken livers. Only--disappointment--they had no livers that day. I'm beginning to think there's some kind of Smith Meadows conspiracy against me, where they don't have precisely the thing I need each week (because of course all farms must cater to my needs at all times). Oh well, at least I got the chicken. Next I stopped by the Cedarbrook Farm stall to pick up some sausage for the stuffing. They were out of "country rope," but did have loose sausage stuffing outside of the casing--perfect! I thanked them for the heart, and reported that it tasted like roast beef. They looked at me like I had sprouted two heads, but tried to be polite about it. I guess the thought of cooking pig heart is just a little too much crazy at 9:00 in the morning, even if you are a farmer. It's going to be fun when I ask them for pig livers for the upcoming pate....

Then I loaded up on veggies and hauled my take home. Next to Whole Foods for cornichons, livers, cream and bread while the chicken and sausage defrosted in the refrigerator.

In addition to the chicken-in-a-pot, I decided to go with the "pot" theme and make salted caramel pots-de-creme from a recipe I found on Tastespotting at the blog "A Bowl of Mush" and have been dying to try. I need to get on some of the desserts that are actually in the book, but they're so few, while the main courses are so many, I'm trying to space them out. So as a bonus, I'll tell you about my experience with this recipe, even if it doesn't exactly go with the theme.

After getting back from Whole Foods, I started the dessert by melting sugar, sea salt, and a little water in a pot til it got caramelized and liquidy. The recipe calls for stirring constantly, but I found that by leaving the sugar alone, then stirring it up a bit and leaving it alone again, the caramelization process went faster, but still didn't burn. Then I took the caramel off the heat to add the cream. This proved troublesome, as the caramel immediately turned rock-hard and stuck to the bottom of the pan, refusing to mix with the cream at all. I had to allow the cream to heat slowly and melt the caramel in order to incorporate.

While the caramel melted into the cream, I started preparing the stuffing for the bird. First I mixed a cup of bread cubes with some more heavy cream, then added parsley and shallot. Next I chopped up a half pound of chicken livers into a liver-y mush, and added them plus the pound of sausage meat to the mix. The stuff looked a bit slimy thanks to the livers, but I bucked up and stuffed the mess into the bird. There was a good bowlful of stuffing left over, even after I crammed the chicken to the breaking point, so I baked it in the oven as dressing.

Raw stuffing. Yup that red gobbety stuff is chicken liver and possibly blood. Mmm.

Tony calls for sewing the chicken's butt up with a trussing needle and thread, but by the time I'd overstuffed the thing to the point of livery stuffing oozing out of its cavity (nice mental picture there, right?), there was going to be no sewing, that was for sure. Also, I couldn't find a needle and thread at the Whole Foods. I figured once I got the stuffing in and propped the chicken up inside the pot, the stuffing would stay reasonably intact.

Finally, I chopped up the veggies (carrots, parsnips instead of turnips, celery, garlic, onions), and added them and a bouquet garni to the pot, and set them to simmer for two hours.

Chicken and veg simmering together

Back to the custards. By now, the cream had melted the caramel sufficiently so that I had caramel infused cream instead of rock hard caramel sitting in a pool of cream. I cooled the caramel cream and added it to a mix of egg yolks, sugar, and vanilla. The mix filled four ramekins reasonably well (enough for Husband J, Neighbor C, Friend I and me), so into the oven it went for about 50 minutes to bake.

By this time the chicken stew was smelling amazing, bubbling away on the stove, and the extra dressing had come out of the oven sizzling, and filling the kitchen with a rich meaty aroma. Husband J, Neighbor C and I all had bites, and the stuff was really out of this world.

Cooked dressing, glistening with delicious fat.

After the chicken simmered for two hours, I threw in a chopped up head of cabbage and a couple of red potatoes, and let the stew simmer for another 30 minutes. Then the pot came off the heat, the chicken came out of the pot, and I carved it up, giving everyone a chunk of white meat, a chunk of dark meat, a spoonful of stuffing, and some veggies, and some broth on top. Cornichons, salt and mustard went into the extra ramekins on the table for everyone to spoon out as much as we liked.

The result was better than I could have imagined. I'm always skeptical about boiling food, coming from the Irish tradition of "chuck it into the pot and boil it till it's grey" school of cooking by ancestry, but poulet au pot makes for one spectacular chicken. The meat was super tender, falling off the bone, but the breast meat was not at all dry. The stuffing inside the bird spilled out in a nice, well-cooked pile, adding some meaty richness to the dish. The veggies were all cooked to perfection, especially the very delicious cabbage and potatoes. All of it went wonderfully with the briny mustard and cornichons. Husband J feels that it is the chicken stew equivalent of a pastrami sandwich, with the meaty goodness nicely balances with the tart mustard and sour pickle. In fact, he liked it better than the poulet roti, because the meat was so tender and soft in this dish, and the combination of veggies and condiments were perfect. Everyone ate a big plateful, barely saving room for dessert (the dish is surprisingly filling).

The caramel pots de creme were again the big hit of the night (notice how everyone loves desserts best?) with everyone cooing over their salty caramely goodness. I topped them with whipped cream and a sprinkle of sea salt, and it was the perfect end to a great meal. The caramel cream was an even bigger hit than the fruit tarts if you can believe it.

Uh, and sorry about the lack of photos on this post. The dishes got snapped up before I could really take a camera to them. I'll definitely be making this dish again, so I might try to supplement this post with future poulet au pot photos.

Lessons learned: Sometimes chucking it into a pot and boiling it is the best way to cook. No matter what, everyone loves dessert best. Anything tastes good with mustard, salt and pickle. Chicken livers are pretty freaking tasty.

Next week: Frisee aux lardons (BACON SALAD, an oxymoron if I've ever heard one) and Coquilles Saint Jacques avec Champagne (sea scallops in champagne sauce). But what for dessert?