This is a guest contribution to Illuminations for The Great Rare Books Bake Off by Adam Beauchamp, Humanities Librarian at FSU Libraries.
I love seafood. If it lives beneath the waves, I’m willing to fry it and try it. I grew up on the Great Lakes and then spent most of my adult life in Louisiana, so I’ve never been more than a few city blocks from major bodies of water. Naturally, then, when it came to my entry into the Great Rare Books Bake Off, I gravitated to the many preparations for fish. For an added challenge, I decided to dive into classic French cooking and test my translation skills with La grande cuisine illustrée: sélection raisonnée de 1500 recettes de cuisine transcendante by Prosper Salles and Prosper Montagné.
Published in 1902 in Monaco, La grande cuisine illustrée is emblematic of the French haute cuisine that emerged in nineteenth century France in the ritzy hotels and restaurants of the Belle Époque. These dishes scaled down the heavy sauces and ornate garnishes of the pre-revolutionary aristocracy in favor of lighter sauces that enhanced rather than masked the flavors of their expensive ingredients.
Instead of trying to make one of the many dishes that call for one or two spoonfuls of eight different sauces–I don’t think I own enough sauce pans for that!–I went with simple preparations for trout and asparagus that would let me focus on technique: Truite à la Meunière (p.214) with a side of Pointes d’Asperges à la Chantilly (p. 627).
Challenge number one was translating unfamiliar culinary terms from French to English. The online Dictionnaire de l’Academie Française, along with my pocket-sized French-English dictionary, were key to decoding words like ebarber (take off the fins) and ciseler (score the skin). The fishmonger at Whole Foods was kind enough to scale and ebarber my fish, so I only needed to score it before seasoning inside and out with kosher salt and pepper.
Wait, that’s not a trout! Correct, mon ami, that is a red snapper, fresh from the Gulf of Mexico. There were no trout available when I made groceries. Red snapper is both a close substitute for trout and a delicious local option. When you live this close to excellent fisheries of the Gulf, why would you eat anything else?
Also, unlike Chef Louis in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, resist the urge to cut off the head. There’s a lot of flavor in the head and bones, so cook your fresh fish whole if you can.
With my fish scored and seasoned, it was time to bring on the butter! As described in La grande cuisine illustrée, à la Meunière is a preparation of few ingredients, essentially referring to any fish prepared in melted butter. Chefs Salles and Montagné suggest using une poêle, ovale de préférence. Poêle has several meanings. Un poêle, the masculine noun, is a stove, as in a wood-burning stove. It can also mean a black cloth used to cover a coffin during funeral services. My fish was certainly dead, but I don’t think the recipe called for a funeral. The feminine noun, une poêle, refers to a frying pan. I don’t have an oval pan as recommended, so I heated up my trusty cast iron skillet and added about two tablespoons of butter. When the butter started to bubble, I gave the fish a quick roll in flour and laid it in the pan, whole.
My sous-chef, Ophelia, wanted to eat the fish raw rather than assist in its preparation, so she was dismissed from the kitchen. Basting regularly, I cooked one side for about 7 minutes, then flipped it over to cook the other side. The nice thing about fish is that it cooks quickly, so hungry dinner guests won’t have to wait long. Chefs Salles and Montagné advise that the butter should not be too hot in order to cook the fish slowly and avoid frying the fish to a crisp. I failed in that task; my butter got too hot and I ended up with crispy, though delicious, skin. No one was sad about that.
While the fish was frying, I turned my attention to the Pointes d’Asperges à la Chantilly, or asparagus points served with crème fouettée (whipped cream). No, this is not a dessert. The whipped cream is not the sweetened variety that you might dollop on your slice of pecan pie, but rather an unsweetened cream sauce meant to melt over the asparagus. The French are not shy about their use of dairy.
Chefs Salles and Montagné instruct us to prepare the asparagus points in the “ordinary method,” which I took to mean wash them and break off the tough bottom part of the stalks. My asparagus ended up being much longer than “points,” which created some problems later, but they cooked up beautifully. Following the instructions, I blanched them in salted boiling water.
I learned lots of French culinary vocabulary following the next steps of the recipe: Les égoutter (drain them), rafraîchir (cool), and les mettre à étuver dans une sauteuse (steam them in a sauté pan) with a pat of butter. As if that wasn’t enough dairy, I then added three spoonfuls of crème double (heavy whipping cream) to the sauté, which thickened quickly to coat the asparagus. While the asparagus were steaming, I prepared my crème fouettée, beating a healthy pour of whipping cream in a bowl until I had achieved “soft peaks.” I was ready to serve.
This was the tricky part. Dresser en timbale, instruct Chefs Salles and Montagné. Build a timpani drum? That can’t be right. In culinary terms, dresser means to plate or arrange, and as best I can tell, a timbale is a round mold or dish. Being fresh out of timbales in my kitchen, I arranged my asparagus in teacups, which were too small for my overly long asparagus points. They hung over the sides as I arranged them around the outside of the cups, leaving a gap in the middle in which to drop une forte cuillerée (a large spoonful) of whipped cream. This seemed like an awfully fussy way to serve asparagus, but it made for a rather fancy presentation.
Overall, the meal was delicious. The fish was hands down the star of the show. A simple preparation is always best for a whole fish; it came out sweet and buttery (indeed!), and the crispy skin added a nice salty crunch. The asparagus were tender and added a nice grassy note to the richness of the fish, but the whipped cream did not add much flavor. The spiral presentation of asparagus in my substitute timbales made the whole spread feel more elegant. My partner and I enjoyed our meal, appropriately, with a French chardonnay, and blue crab beignets for lagniappe.
In Louisiana, lagniappe is a little something extra, either an extra side dish at a restaurant or a small gift with purchase from a shopkeeper. For this blog post, my lagniappe is an additional seafood recipe. Last week I spent some time at the beach on Saint George Island and filled my crab trap with fresh blue crabs from Apalachicola Bay. Crab are highly perishable, so I boiled them up right away, but brought home plenty of leftover crab meat.
My recipe for Blue Crab Beignets (p. 54) comes from Donald Link’s cookbook, Down South: Bourbon, Pork, Gulf Shrimp & Second Helpings of Everything. That subtitle is very good advice. Donald Link is an award-winning chef from Louisiana’s Cajun Country. He runs several New Orleans restaurants, including one of my favorites, Pêche. Like Chefs Salles and Montagné, Link’s recipes are simple enough to highlight the quality of the ingredients, but his rustic style and bold Louisiana flavors are a lot more satisfying.
The beignets recipe is relatively simple. Whisk two eggs with a cup of mayonnaise and two tablespoons of Creole mustard. Stir in one quarter cup each of diced red onion and finely sliced scallions, and season with 1½ teaspoons kosher salt, ½ teaspoon black pepper, and a pinch of cayenne. Fold in one cup of panko bread crumbs, and finally, gently fold in one pound of crab meat, being careful not to break up the crabmeat. Let the batter chill for about an hour to firm up.
Using two large spoons, shape the loose batter into coherent little footballs, or what the French would call quenelles. Fry the beignets in a neutral oil at 350°F until golden brown, then remove to a plate covered with paper towels to absorb any excess oil.
These rich seafood beignets were a great way to showcase the leftover crab meat. We enjoyed them with a white remoulade dipping sauce, which added a tangy note to the fried beignets. These made for a flavorful Gulf Coast addition to our classically prepared French entrée.