Fifteen Eighty Four

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Recipe from the Early-Modern French Kitchen: Monkfish

Susan Pinkard

Recipe from the Early-Modern French Kitchen

If you’re like me, tonight you’ll be parked in front of your TV with your friends, some take-out and a drink. Once this madness dies down, get back in the kitchen! Now, I love monkfish. If you’ve never tried it, think delicate, and very much like lobster. Personally, I prefer it to lobster. After seeing Susan’s adaptation of this La Varenne preparation, I know how I’ll be cooking it next time I pick some up. –J

Serves 4

This method of poaching fish in white wine, butter, and aromatic seasonings is still a staple of French cooking today. It is usually associated with delicate saltwater fish such as sole or flounder. La Varenne, however, recommended this method for a wide variety of fish, including monkfish and barbel. La Varenne wrote that sauce of this sort should be “bien liée” (well-thickened), or even “fort courte & bien liée” (strongly reduced and well-thickened) to set it apart from the thin butter glazes he used in other recipes. Because he failed to spell out the technique he used to achieve this result, the recipe that follows is my best attempt to approximate the results he described.

The method bears a family resemblance to that of making a modern beurre blanc, but uses somewhat less butter that many modern recipes. See also the following recipe for beets with beurre blanc, also from La Varenne.

Equipment: A sauté pan or shallow casserole with a tight-fitting lid that is just large enough to hold the fish; a slotted spatula, a serving platter, and a wooden spoon.

13/4 pounds of monkfish filet, cut into 4 equal serving pieces
1/4 cup onions, finely minced
2 Tb of cold butter, cut into dice (additional butter is called for later)
1 cup dry white wine (or a mixture of wine and water)
1 tsp capers, finely minced
8 Tb cold butter or more, according to taste, cut into 1/2 tablespoon-sized pieces.

  1. Rinse the pieces of monkfish, pat them dry, sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper, and arrange in the sauté pan on a bed of minced onion. Add the 2 Tb of diced butter and the wine.
  2. Place the sauté pan over medium-high heat and bring the liquids to a boil. Cover the pan and turn the heat down to very low to maintain a simmer. Cook for about 8 minutes and then test to see if the fish is done (it should be springy rather than squashy when you poke it with your finger). Remove the fish to a serving dish and keep warm while finishing the sauce.
  3. Raise the heat under the sauté pan to high. Boil the juices rapidly to reduce them to about 1 Tb. Off the heat, swirl in 1 Tb of the cold butter and stir with a wooden spoon until the butter is almost melted. Add a second piece and keep beating until it, too, is melted. Turn the heat down to very low and return the pan to the heat. Add another piece of butter, beating vigorously as it melts, and keep going, piece-by-piece, until you think the sauce is thick enough. Taste and correct seasoning for salt and pepper.
  4. To serve, dribble the white wine butter sauce over the fish and top with the minced capers.

Variation: Catfish Poached in Court Bouillon and White Wine

Because catfish are plentiful and cheap in the United States, Americans tend to think of them as plebian food. However, their sweet flesh is perfectly suited to the deluxe recipes that La Varenne devised for barbel, a related European species. In addition to pairing barbel with sauce blanche, he cooked it in a manner similar to the preceding monkfish recipe. Omit the minced onion and substitute 13/4 pounds of catfish filets for the monkfish, 1/2 cup of court bouillon (or fish stock, clam juice, or even good-quality chicken stock) plus 1/2 cup of dry white wine for the cooking liquid, and 1/2 Tb each minced parsley and green onions for the capers. Check the fish after 7 minutes of simmering to see if it is done (the thinner catfish filets require less cooking time than the thicker monkfish).

Note: Other varieties of fish and seafood that received similar treatment in Le Cuisinier françois include carp (substitute minced onion for the other, for barbeau au demy court bouillon. herbs), eel (parsley and capers), flounder (onion and parsley with a drop of vinegar), oysters (poached in their own liquor and white wine with parsley and green onions), pike (poached in white wine with capers and mushrooms), and salmon (poached in either red or white wine with minced onion – a beurre rouge, perhaps?), so feel free to experiment.

About The Author

Susan Pinkard

Susan Pinkard is author of A Revolution in Taste: The Rise of French Cuisine, 1650–1800 (2010). Pinkard holds a Master's degree and a Ph.D. in Modern European History from the Un...

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