With warmer weather, lighter fare grows more appealing, and fish dishes appear more frequently on the menu. Pairing seafood with seasonal vegetables and fresh herbs is perfect for this time of year.
Although today serving fish with vegetables does not seem like an unorthodox idea, many experts in classic cuisine considered the match downright heretical until the liberating influence of nouvelle cuisine in France.
It's hard to imagine that, until the late 1970s, fish was rarely cooked with or even served with vegetables in elegant Parisian restaurants. The main vegetable considered suitable to accompany fish on a classic menu was the potato. Fish with asparagus seems made for springtime, and yet asparagus was generally served as a first course, usually with melted butter or vinaigrette. Only with the new trend toward lighter, more creative menus featuring more fish and vegetables did chefs begin to present them together on the same plate.
Renowned French chefs Paul and Jean Michelli of Le Duc restaurant prepared such dishes as return-to-nature sole soup, made of sole fillets poached with baby carrots, leeks, fennel and small turnips in fish stock enriched with olive oil and flavored with garlic, shallots and Italian parsley; for seasoning, they recommended salt and sugar in equal amounts, as well as freshly ground pepper and cayenne.
Raymond Blanc, who wrote "Recipes from Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons," after his restaurant in Oxfordshire, England, cooked a seafood ragout with spring vegetables, including broccoli spears, zucchini, leeks, spinach and carrots. Enhanced with a touch of cream and butter, the dish was finished with fresh tarragon.
Those of us studying French cooking in Paris at the time found this new trend toward innovation exciting. We rushed to sample the celebrated salmon with sorrel sauce of the Troisgros brothers at their three-star restaurant in Roanne in central France. Most of all, we were thrilled to have superb chefs come to our school to teach their own creations. Our own chef, Fernand Chambrette, prepared his new version of blanquette, making it with shrimp instead of the traditional veal or lamb, and cooked the seafood with mushrooms, baby onions, fresh chervil and a light, creamy sauce. He baked monkfish steaks with eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes and garlic-basil olive oil. His salmon steaks were matched with artichoke hearts, his sole fillets with leeks and white wine butter sauce, and his turbot with spinach, pasta, basil and a touch of cream.
From our chefs we learned that different fish could be prepared using the same recipe and that you could substitute humble fish like whiting for pricy turbot. Thus, if you don't have the fish called for in a dish, or if you prefer to choose a more sustainable species, don't hesitate to replace it with another fish.
If you have an Asian market in your neighborhood, you are likely to find a good selection of fish there, including whole fish, treasured by aficionados, who maintain that fish is most flavorful when cooked whole on the bone. If you're experimenting with an unfamiliar fish, you can cook it following the usual guideline of baking it at 450 F and allowing 9 to 10 minutes per inch of thickness; if it's a fish on the bone, you can then remove the meat from the bones, and add it to any of the recipes below at the last minute.
Fish stock gives a good flavor to festive fish sauces and soups, and is the easiest, fastest stock to prepare -- only 20 minutes compared to several hours for meat stocks. If you don't feel like making it, you can purchase it chilled or frozen at some fish markets, specialty stores and well-stocked supermarkets, or use vegetable broth instead. Or take a tip from Thai, Vietnamese and Filipino cooks and use bottled fish sauce; stir just a tablespoon or two of this potent sauce into a cup of water, and taste before adding any more.
RED TROUT AND ASPARAGUS WITH LEMON PARSLEY SAUCE
This colorful entree is perfect for festive occasions. It is flavored with a light, Mediterranean dressing of fresh lemon juice, olive oil and an abundance of Italian parsley. The dish is quick and easy to prepare. Red trout fillets make this a beautiful dish but you can use any trout that is fresh at your market. The entree is also delicious with salmon fillets.
• 1 pound thin asparagus, thick bases removed
• 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds red trout fillets 1 inch thick
• 1 green onion, chopped
• 2 tablespoons lemon juice
• 1 or 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley
• Salt and freshly ground pepper
• Cayenne pepper to taste
• Lemon wedges (for serving)
Cut each asparagus spear in 3 pieces. Rinse asparagus. Put asparagus pieces in a saucepan of boiling water. Boil 2 minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water.
Preheat oven to 375 F. Lightly oil a baking dish in which fish and asparagus can fit easily in one layer. Put fish in dish and sprinkle it with 1 tablespoon lemon juice, 1 teaspoon olive oil, salt, pepper and chopped green onion. Add 2 tablespoons water to dish.
Bake fish uncovered for 7 minutes. Add asparagus to baking dish around fish. Cover lightly with foil and bake 5 minutes or until fish changes color throughout and asparagus is tender. Cover fish to keep it warm.
In a small bowl, combine remaining lemon juice, olive oil and parsley and whisk to blend. Season to taste with salt, pepper and cayenne. Spoon sauce over fish. Garnish with lemon wedges.
SALMON WITH NOODLES AND LEEKS
Chicken with noodles is a popular pair, but fish with noodles can be just as good. I love salmon and noodles tossed in a creamy leek and dill sauce. To make it easy, I cook the salmon right in the sauce.
Makes 4 servings.
• 3 medium leeks, split, rinsed thoroughly
• 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
• Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
• 1 1/4 pounds salmon fillet
• 1/3 cup dry white wine
• 1/2 cup fish stock (see note below)
• 1/3 cup whipping cream
• 1 teaspoon dried thyme
• 2 tablespoons butter
• 8 ounces medium noodles
• 2 tablespoons snipped dill
Use white and light green parts of leeks; reserve dark green part for making stock. Cut leeks in thin slices. Heat oil in a large skillet. Add leeks, 1 tablespoon water, salt and pepper. Cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes or until tender but not brown.
Remove skin and any bones from salmon fillet. Cut fish into small dice.
Add wine, fish stock and cream to leeks and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, add fish and sprinkle lightly with salt, pepper and thyme. Cook uncovered, stirring often, about 3 minutes or until color of fish becomes lighter. Remove from heat.
Cut butter in pieces and put in a large heated bowl. Cook noodles uncovered in a large pot of water over high heat for about 5 minutes or until tender but firm to the bite. Drain well, transfer to bowl and toss with butter.
Reheat sauce if necessary. Stir in dill. Pour over noodles and toss. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve hot.
QUICK FISH STOCK
The fish frames of halibut or sole are perfect for stock, but you can use the heads, tails and bones of salmon too, or any fish except strong-flavored ones like tuna and mackerel. You can also use fish trimmings or fish pieces for chowder, which are available at some markets.
Makes about 5 cups.
• 1 1/2 pounds fish tails, heads and bones, rinsed thoroughly
• Green tops of 1 leek (optional)
• 1 bay leaf
• 1 sprig fresh thyme
• 5 parsley sprigs
• 7 cups water
Rinse fish bones under cool running water for 5 minutes and put in a saucepan.
Add leek tops, bay leaf, thyme, parsley and water to cover and bring to a boil; skim off foam. Simmer uncovered over low heat, skimming occasionally, 20 minutes. Strain into a bowl. Refrigerate or freeze until ready to use.