French sauces seem pretty scary, don’t they? Hollandaise…. bordelaise…. bearnaise…. they all have a reputation for being touchy and easy to mess up, don’t they? Well, as FDR told us, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. I don’t really know if FDR was much in the kitchen, but I think he was onto something. In my experience, the best successes in the kitchen come when you dive fearlessly into a project. For this meal – whole roast fish with beurre blanc – I definitely jumped into the unknown with both feet.
Full disclosure: I didn’t cook the fish. I know, I know. What’s it doing here, right? Well, I’m not cooking alone as much anymore. And when you’re in the kitchen with someone else, you sometimes make choices together. Other times, choices happen while your back is turned. I walked away from the fish monger – I was gone for only a second! – and by the time I returned, this fish was wrapped up in our basket and my shopping companion had a big huge smile on his face. Never in 1000 years would I have tried to cook a whole fish on my own.
And, really, the fish wasn’t my responsibility – the sauce was. When discussing our dinner plans I had suggested a beurre blanc for our fish. I’d never made a beurre blanc, but really wanted to try it. Beurre blanc is one of those things – like vinaigrette – that can be changed around and modified for whatever flavors you want to use. I’m a huge fan of the light licorice-anise flavor of tarragon, but sometimes it can feel difficult to pair with other flavors. Here I’m matching it with lemon for our fish. That was a stroke of genius if I do say so myself.
I think the thing that frightens people about classic French sauces also intimidates people about the French themselves – you have to devote some attention in order to get really good results. French people don’t understand why Americans are so bombastically friendly to people they’ve never met before. To the French, you need to develop a relationship before devoting that kind of care and attention. Likewise, classic French sauces require your attention and care before they will yield the velvety smoothness and flavor you want.
The key to the beurre blanc is temperature. You cannot allow the butter to get so hot that the milk fats separate from the oils. When that happens you end up with ghee and milk solids. Ghee is great, but it’s not what we’re looking for here. Here we want a creamy rich and smooth sauce and so we need to keep the temperature well controlled in order to do that.
One way to control the temperature is to keep the flame low on your stove. Another is to add the butter when it is very cold and only a piece or two at a time. Whisking constantly also keeps air moving into the sauce that will help keep it from overheating but also make it airy and light.
So if you’re going to try these recipes – techniques, really – then I suggest you pour yourself a big glass of wine (or bubbly, like we did) and settle in for a meal that might take a little while to bring together, but will be truly amazing when it’s done. Enjoy.
- 1-1.5 pound whole fish, de-finned and scaled by your fish monger (see Note)
- olive oil
- sea salt
- fresh cracked black pepper
- 1 tablespoon very finely minced shallot (see Note)
- 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon pepper (white is best, black will do)
- 1 1/2 - 2 sticks butter sliced into 1/2 tablespoon pieces and chilled well (see Note)
- 2 teaspoons minced tarragon
- First, prepare the fish....
- At least three hours prior to baking (or as early as the night before), score the fish several times on each side. Place on an oven-safe dish coated in olive oil. Drizzle olive oil over the fish and rub over the skin evenly. Sprinkle liberally - including inside the scoring cuts - with salt and pepper, using a tablespoon or so of salt and a teaspoon or two of pepper. Cover and chill until ready to bake.
- Roast the fish...
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Bake fish, turning once, for 20-30 minutes (depending on weight). When in doubt, take the fish out a bit before you believe it is fully cooked, tent with aluminum foil and allow to rest several minutes before filleting. The fish will continue to cook as it sits undisturbed outside of the oven.
- While the fish is roasting, make the sauce....
- In a small saucepan, heat shallots, vinegar, lemon juice, salt and pepper over medium-high heat. Reduce liquid for about 5-7 minutes or until very little remains - a teaspoon or two - in the pan with the shallots. When reduced, turn the burner OFF before proceeding. If you have an electric stove, move to a new burner that is not already heated up. Stirring constantly, ideally with a wire whisk, add butter pieces one by one, allowing each to melt before adding another. After about 5 minutes of stirring, turn the burner back on the lowest possible setting to prevent the sauce from overheating.
- As the butter melts, it should remain milky and smooth, not separated. If you see the butter beginning to separate, take the pan off the heat entirely and add several more pats of chilled butter, whisking briskly to bring the temperature of the sauce back down.
- After melting all of the butter, add chopped tarragon and stir to combine. Drizzle sauce over fish fillets at time of service.
- FISH - you can de-fin and scale your fish yourself, but I don't know how to do that yet. I'm old that Mark Bittman's book How to Cook Everything has a good explanation if you'd like to undertake this chore yourself.
- SHALLOT - mince the shallot as finely as you can. The shallot in the photographs above is NOT fine enough. I should have continued mincing, but hindsight is 20/20. Chop yours finely and when you think it's fine enough, chop it through twice more.
- BUTTER - the amount of butter you add will affect two things - intensity of flavor of your sauce and volume of sauce. If you want a lighter flavor, just add a few more pats of chilled butter. If you want more flavor, add fewer.