Thursday, January 04, 2007

Banana! Happy 2007!

Yes, yes, late as usual. But better late …

Hopefully a tasty 2007. Seems to be starting out that way.

I was thinking about some of the things we found people doing on New Year’s Eve, and Day, that were somewhat food related.

Lately, we’ve opt for fish. Supposed to bring luck. Despite the mercury and other toxins. Maybe because you have to be lucky to catch one?

We used to go in for lentils. Which are considered good luck bringers for the New Year in parts of Italy. For example, pasta with a lentil–based sauce. Which we had one year. While clinging precariously to the top of a mountain (Monte Pori) a few thousand feet up in the Dolomites, in what I call Süd Tirol (southern Tyrolia), and others call Alto Adagio. In a tiny apartment with way too many people. Who all spoke Italian but me. With bottles of Grappa, champagne, and lots of pasta with lentils. Running up and down the halls, stairs, and around the apartment grounds, yelling BANANA!! At the top of our lungs. Fireworks going off everywhere.

Well, I yelled “BANANA!” till I could no longer make an audible noise.

Everyone else apparently yelled “Bon Anno”. Which, after lots of grappa, champagne, et al, sounded a lot liked banana. It was years and years before I found out that Italy, New Years and bananas are not somehow connected.

At other times, we ate noodles. For example, in Chinatown in San Francisco. But, naturally, not around the beginning of January. This year, the Chinese New Year will occur on February 18th, coinciding with a full moon. With a traditional 15 day long party. And will be year 4703 of their calendar. When we will transition from the year of the dog (2006) to the year of the pig. Lots of people trying to squeeze their newborns into the current year (good luck with all that!). The pig babies ( David Letterman, Elton John) being modest, shy, honest, trustworthy (hmm!). As opposed to the dog types (Bill Clinton, me), who are supposed to be loyal (of course), intelligent (not based on my dog!), unselfish and idealistic (double hmm!!). Well, so much for the zodiac!

In Munich, it seems to me that we also aimed for fish. Carp, to be exact. Again, for the luck factor.

In Florence, it was a super elegant dinner, with wonderful food and wine, packed with Florentinians (?), who spent the entire evening trying to talk to us, them speaking no English, us speaking no Italian. By midnight, we were somehow best of friends, we knew each others entire life story. And eventually exited the now wildly raucous restaurant to the totally chaotic streets of old city Florence, where crowds thronged around shooting off fireworks, yelling, singing, drinking, and generally having a pretty good time. While ancient statues watched on in a sort of detached bemusement, draped with streamers of confetti.

In Alsace, it was their classic Choucroute, made with that wonderful sauerkraut steeped in Champagne for the holiday, and not at all sour, but instead sweet with apples and juniper berries, and layered with sausages, roasted goose, liver dumplings, and so on. That took the chill off quickly.

Hamburg was all about the herring. Which I like. Either Matjes style, or Bismark style. Matjes are a little sweeter, being cured in sugar as well as brine, and Bismark are just sour, having a vinegar and brine curing bath. Or even better, Rollmops, which are Bismark style herring wrapped around a pickle and held together with a toothpick. Great for a hangover!

I mentioned yesterday the Mussels steamed in garlic and red wine that we had for New Year’s Eve dinner. Delicious. Everyone still healthy. We complemented that with some chocolate mousse, and lots of champagne.

For the last few years, I’ve forged my own way on New Year’s Day, though. Yes, we always seem to catch a few minutes of the Tournament of Roses Parade on TV. As it’s gentle pace and relatively quiet tone goes well with a headache and a cup of hot coffee. And no, it has never occurred to me to be a good idea to sit out on the street for a few days to get a curbside view of the parade live. Although thousands do, bringing the entire kitchen along so as not to miss out on a New Year’s Eve feast.

And of course we watch USC kick butt in the Rose bowl (football, American style).

But after that, it’s on to serious cooking. Very serious. French. From Provence. Ok, classic French food snobs, it’s not from Lyon, but still damn tasty!

Bourride. That king of dishes from Provence (at least in my mind).

Basically, a fish soup, perfumed with fennel and orange, thickened with a garlicky and lemony Aioli. Served over fresh toasted baguettes.

Again with the fish. I know. But the thing that intrigues me with Bourride is not just the fish, but also the clever use of the aioli as a thickener. As the aioli is made with raw egg yolks. And gentle heating in the fish broth results in a sort of very loose custard, or thickened soup, depending on your perspective. If you’re careful. Otherwise, as has happened some years, you get scrambled eggs with your fish soup.

In any event, a fun dish, with wonderful flavors, and a bit of a showcase for aspiring home chefs.

To me, there are two tricks to the dish. One is to procure a variety of very fresh, whole fish. One sort of fish will not do. The brilliant flavor comes in part from variety. The second trick is slow gentle cooking, both of the fish bones to keep the broth clear, as well as the egg yolks while thickening the broth.

Traditionally, Bourride is made with a Loup de Mer (sea bass), a Bauroue (monkfish) and a Merlan (whiting). I found the sea bass, and the monkfish, but used a catfish instead of the merlan. Probably a cod or an ocean perch would have been better. But it all worked out. I generally use one whole fish per person.

The fish are filleted, and the bones and head used to make a broth. Being careful to simmer, but not boil the bones. Using a classic bouquet garni, champagne, and a sautéed onion for additional flavor.

The aioli is just the classic garlic, egg yolk, lemon juice, salt and olive oil mixture. Using two cloves of garlic and one egg yolk per person. Adding the lemon juice and olive oil to match.

Once the broth and the aioli are ready, the fish filets are gently poached – not boiled – in the broth, further flavored with fennel, thyme, bay, and orange peel. This makes a delicate but wonderfully flavorful aroma while cooking.

The filets are removed from the poaching liquid, the aioli tempered with some of the poaching liquid, then the tempered aioli whisked into the broth. Just like a custard, the mixture is cooked over low heat just until it coats the back of a wooded spoon.

Some toasted baguette slices are placed in flat soup bowls, the fish fillets distributed on top, and the wonderfully fragrant, hopefully thickened and not lumpy broth ladled over everything. A sprinkle of chopped parsley, and then as quickly as possible served while still hot. With a glass of the same champagne used to make the broth.

A real treat, if you can pull it off!

Cheers! Prost! Salute! Health! Banana!!!

Print Recipe

From the book ‘La Cuisiniere Provencale’, Noevelle Edition, J.B.Reboul
Translated painstakingly from French by surfindaave
Serves 4

3 whole, very fresh fish, preferable one Loup de Mer (sea bass), one bauroue (monkfish, or substitute a red snapper, some shark, or even some lobster tail) and one merlan (whiting, ocean perch or cod), fillets removed and reserved, bones and head chopped roughly
1 onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 shallot, chopped
some fresh thyme
several springs parsley
a piece of celery
a bay leaf
olive oil
1-2 cups champagne or white wine
6-8 cloves garlic, chopped
1-2 tsp salt
4 egg yolks
juice of one lemon, or to taste
olive oil – at least one cup
1-2 baguettes, sliced
olive oil
1 onion, minced fine
1 small fennel bulb, sliced thinly into juliennes, or chopped
the peel from 1-2 oranges (depends on size of orange), sliced into thin juliennes
several sprigs fresh thyme, leaves removed from stems
2 bay leaves
Additional parsley, chopped for garnish

Make the fish broth:
Rinse the fish bones and heads under cold water. In a heavy pot, sauté the onion, carrots and shallot in the olive oil. Deglaze the pan with the champagne or white wine. Add the fish bones and heads. Sautee for a few minutes. Add just enough water to cover the bones after you have packed them down a bit. Add the bouquet gari herbs, tied together or loose, and bring the broth just to the boiling point. Reduce heat, and simmer for 25 to 30 minutes, skimming any scum that rises to the surface. Strain the broth through a cheese cloth, pressing on the solids, reserving the broth and discarding the rest.

Make the aioli:
In a mortar and pedestal, reduce the garlic and some salt to a paste. Place in a small bowl. Whisk in the egg yolks. Add some lemon juice – not all of it – whisking. In a slow stream, whisk in the olive oil. Add some additional lemon juice if the mixture gets too thick. Continue to add olive oil in a stream until you have a mayonnaise consistence. Taste, and add additional salt and/or lemon juice as necessary. Place in refrigerator and reserve. Note that it will increase in garlic flavor while it sits.

Make the toasts:
Slice the baguettes on a diagonal into 1 inch slices, brush both sides with olive oil, and toast under the broiler until both sides are browned. Reserve.

Make the fish:
In a large, heavy skillet, add the onion, fennel, thyme, orange peel, bay leaves, and most of the fish broth. Season with lightly with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil and reduce heat. Gently place the fish fillets into the broth in a single layer. Cover loosely, and poach at a simmer – do not boil – for 12 minutes. Remove the fish fillets to a heated plate, keeping them as intact as possible, spoon a little of the broth over them, cover loosely, keep warm and reserve.

Thicken the broth:
Turn off the heat on the broth in the pan. Whisk several tablespoons of the hot broth into the aioli. Continue to add broth to the aioli, whisking, until you have added 1-2 cups of liquid. Carefully whisk the tempered aioli mixture back into the hot broth in the pan. Stirring constantly, heat the broth over low heat until the broth begins to thicken. Slow and gentle is the best method to avoid scrambling the egg yolks. When the broth has thickened a bit, and just coats the back of a wooden spoon, remove the pan from the heat.

Plate it:
Place several slices of the toast in the bottom of each soup bowl. Place a few pieces of each kind of fish fillet onto the pieces of toast. Spoon the hot broth over the fish, sprinkle with chopped parsley, and serve immediately! Enjoy!

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