Sunday, December 28, 2008

Fish in Monk's Clothing

"Merry Christmas! Could you come to the kitchen and help with the fish?" It wasn't exactly unexpected, but it was still a nice little challenge, like Top Chef the home edition. Unfamiliar kitchen, lots of competition for space, no specific instructions and the opportunity to make or break someone's Christmas dinner. On such occasions, it's good to have a little bit of wisdom from Julia Child in your back pocket.

My travel plans to Illinois had been delayed for two days by snow and ice, so I ended up flying on Christmas day, getting to my brother's house about an hour and a half before guests were showing up for dinner. Everything on the menu was traditional in that household except for the fish, which my brother doesn't eat, so I got volunteered to cook that.

Again, I did have some warning. Several days before, my brother had mentioned on the phone that some guests had asked for fish instead of tenderloin, and that he had bought some frozen tilapia filets. All he needed was a recipe. I said that for simple white fish, I used to like the method that Julia Child had gotten from some monks in the south of France, an episode entitled ``Fish in Monk's Clothing,'' where the fish is baked covered in lots of aromatic vegetables. "Search on the internet, I'm sure you'll find a recipe," I said.

Well, he had searched and had found four recipes for tilapia, but none were Julia's. I didn't like the look of them and although I hadn't made this dish in years, I preferred to find my own way again. Fortunately, the dish turned out well, but the down side was that I had no recipe to give to the people who asked for one, only a bunch of vague constraints.

The essential thing is that the mix of vegetables should taste good, but be reasonably mild so as not to overpower the fish, and should still have a lot of moisture in it. You need enough to cover the fish reasonably well. The vegetables drip flavor into the fish while at the same time protecting it from losing moisture in the direct heat of the oven.

(For the Haskell readers, think of the following as a sort of QuickCheck test suite for the actual method.)
  1. Chop and saute a bunch of aromatic vegetables, season with salt and pepper, thyme or other mild herbs, and reduce with some white wine. The vegetables should be soft, but still very moist and it's good to have some liquid remaining.
  2. TASTE the vegetables. If they don't taste good, fiddle with the seasoning until they do.
  3. Season the filets with salt and pepper, then place on an oiled baking pan. If the tails of the filets are much thinner than the main part of the body, overlap them so that the fish is roughly the same thickness all over.
  4. Layer the vegetables over the fish along with any remaining liquid.
  5. Bake gently until the fish is just opaque and flakes easily. I think we did 350F for about 15 minutes, but this will vary with the amount and size. You could also microwave it for 5-10 minutes, covered, if you use a glass or porcelain casserole dish.
As for which vegetables, that varies based on what I have on hand, but start by sweating an onion in olive oil and butter, then adding celery and a few chopped cloves of garlic. It is fine to brown the onion a bit, but not the garlic. This time we added some chopped mushrooms and parsley. I have added carrots in the past, but that's about as strong as I would go. Julia Child used a head of iceberg lettuce chopped up, but I've never had the nerve to try that. Spinach or swiss chard make a nice choice, but kale, mustard greens and cabbage are too strong. Fennel is a nice addition if you like anise flavor.

Any simple white fish works here, such as flounder, sole, tilapia, catfish, etc. I think I've done it successfully with bluefish, but I would avoid salmon.

How close this is to what Julia Child did, I really don't remember, because I only saw the show once long ago, but I'm pretty sure I've got the essence right. It's a simple way to marry fish with whatever vegetables are available. In any case, it was good enough for Christmas dinner.


Fred said...

Cliff, Your recipe was glorious, tasteful. I can't wait to try it. I would love to know what you would do with salmon, or, why you would not try this recipe with salmon. Maybe I will see if I can find out what Julia would say about salmon since you invoke her recipe for tilapia. Thanks for a wonderful fish dish.

KG2V said...

Sounds Tasty

Merry Christmas to you (and pass it along to the rest of the Family)

Lewis is down at the Mountain, all is quiet here in Queens (well, short of my leg, and a kidney stone)

Charlie & Mary

Devid said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Clifford Beshers said...

Fred, glad you enjoyed it. Glorious is a strong word!

As for salmon, it's a question of balance and moisture. Salmon has a strong flavor and the mild flavor of the vegetables would just muddy it, not bring out the best in it. Although you could conceivably add dill and/or asparagus, two classic salmon companions and see what happens. There are always surprises to discover when you experiment.

As for moisture, salmon has more fat and doesn't dry out as easily, so you can use more heat on the outside to develop more interesting flavors. And salmon is good rare in the middle, so you don't need it cooked all the way through like the white fish, which is what that blanket of moist vegetables provides.

Cafe Pasadena said...

You may be aware Julia Child is originally from Pasadena.