Last week’s freezing temperatures, unexpected and equally unwelcome, found me wrapped in a warm blanket watching old DVDs. One of my favorites, “Julie and Julia,” transported me to another place.
Last week’s freezing temperatures, unexpected and equally unwelcome, found me wrapped in a warm blanket watching old DVDs. One of my favorites, “Julie and Julia,” transported me to another place. Not Paris, but America’s Museum, the Smithsonian.
My daughter and I made a pilgrimage to visit Julia Child’s kitchen, on permanent exhibit after being disassembled from its Cambridge, Mass., home, carefully packed, moved, and reassembled in Washington, D.C.
My daughter planned to capture the moment in a photo, like in the movie, but the tangle of visitors made that seem unlikely. Undaunted, she pulled out her camera, planted her feet firmly in front of the exhibit and made an announcement:
“My mother is a chef. You need to clear this area so I can take her picture. ... Right now!”
Movie and memory played out, I needed to cook. I wanted something French, decadent but uncomplicated. I settled on Julia’s first meal in France. Plaice a la meuniere is a classic recipe as well as a technique, dusting a food lightly with flour before cooking in butter. Lots of butter. Legendarily created by the wives of the men who milled flour from grain, women so frugal they couldn’t bear to waste the light clouds of flour that flurried from the machinery. I’d read recipes but never tried it, mostly because of the prohibitive quantity of butter. But also because I hate boning out fish. Despite several seafood internships, I never got the knack. Maybe I just wasn’t interested.
Since plaice is rare in this country, I looked for sole but found only frozen. Fortunately, New England offers a lot of choices at the fish counter. I settled for fresh, beautiful flounder fillets.
In the kitchen, I pulled out my best stainless steel skillet, large enough to hold four small fillets with a little space between them. (Moisture evaporates through those spaces so the food browns; pack the food too close together and it will steam in its own juices and turn out uninvitingly pale.) I brought butter and a fresh lemon to room temperature to melt and juice easily. (A whole lemon contains about 4 tablespoons of juice.) I put the olive oil on call in case I needed a few drops to protect the butter from burning. The flour salted and peppered, the parsley washed, chopped and gently wrung out in paper towels to keep the leaves light and separate, I was ready to start.
I patted the fish fillets dry so that a light coating of flour would adhere without turning glue-y. I melted the butter and brought it to a sizzle, added the fish and waited until each side browned, 3 to 4 minutes per side. By now the butter was browned also. Then, with a large stainless steel spatula, I slipped the fish out of the pan to a plate in a barely warm oven. I swooshed more butter around in the pan, pulled the fish out of the oven, and poured the extra butter on top. Then I showered the whole thing with lemon juice and parsley.
This needs to be tasted the minute it is done. Some cooks don’t even bother with a plate and bring the skillet to the table. Hot browned butter takes on warm caramel overtones. Its nutty lusciousness wraps itself around the delicate fish. The lemon and parsley cuts all the opulence just enough to keep it interesting.
A go-with salad should be direct in flavor, with just a hint or sharpness: two big handfuls of baby arugula, a large chopped tomato, a teaspoon of finely diced blue cheese, a thinly sliced scallion (white part only) tossed with a very small amount of olive oil, lemon juice, and a few big, coarse grains of sea salt for crunch.
FILLETS OF FISH AS COOKED BY THE MILLER’S WIFE
Sole a la meuniere
Makes 4 servings
Don’t let the fish cook so long that the fillets fall apart.
Some cooks like to return the fish to the skillet after the second melting of butter. Then spoon the butter over it and bring the pan to the table.
4 small or medium flounder fillets or other delicate white fish
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
salt and pepper, to season the flour
1/2 stick plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
juice of half a lemon
handful of finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
1. Gently rinse the fish fillets and pat dry on paper towels. Prepare a plate of seasoned flour. Dip the fish into the seasoned flour to cover on both sides. Shake off any excess flour.
2. Melt the butter in a heavy skillet on medium-high heat. When it begins to foam, turn the heat down to medium. Add the fish to the pan. Cook for 3 minutes on each side until it is golden brown on both sides. Transfer the fish to a platter.
3. Turn up the heat on the pan. Add the remaining butter and cook until it melts and starts to turn brown. Turn off the heat. Pour the extra butter over the fish.
4. Sprinkle the fish with the lemon juice and parsley. Serve it hot.
ARUGULA AND TOMATO SALAD
Makes 4 servings
To get an even dice out of blue cheese, put it in the freezer for about 15 minutes before cutting.
Although using the best ingredients available, like one perfect vine-ripened tomato, gets the best results, the coarse-grained sea salt here makes a huge difference in this salad.
6 cups baby arugula, washed and dried
1 large very ripe tomato, cut in a large dice
2 ounces very good blue-veined cheese, finely diced
1 scallion, trimmed and thinly sliced, white party only
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
coarse grained sea salt to taste
1. Put the arugula in a bowl. Top with the tomato, cheese, and scallion.
2. Separately whisk together the olive oil and lemon juice. Drizzle this over the salad. Toss gently so the tomato doesn’t break up.
3. Sprinkle the top with salt just before serving.
Linda Bassett is the author of “From Apple Pie to Pad Thai: Neighborhood Cooking North of Boston.” Reach her by email at KitchenCall@aol.com. Follow Linda on Twitter at @KitchenCall for a daily kitchen hint, trick, shortcut or info.