hungry et moi and a perfectly cooked fish:
cabillaud avec thym en papillote (cod steamed with thyme in parchment paper)
Another dinner with “Hungry” (I introduced you to him in my March 24, 2012 post which discussed our first date and my love of nuts). Today we move from the culinary discussion of nuts to another heart-healthy protein: fish. If you have ever prepared dinner for a date (or perhaps had a date make dinner for you) you will appreciate this story. If you have prepared fish at home, or have wanted to, this post will be applicable to you as well. It was this dinner and a subsequent query on the very same subject – cooking fish – which inspired this week’s simple pleasure: cabillaud au thym en papillote (cod steamed with thyme in parchment paper).
The weather was getting warm in Los Angeles so I invited Hungry for an al fresco dinner. We previously discussed Hungry joining me in Provence on an upcoming trip so I thought that I would make some classic Provençal dishes: a savory tart with onions, olives and thyme; grilled Loup de Mer with a braised zucchini and fresh basil farce; and a rosé from the Côtes de Provence (which I had brought back from France). His favorite chocolate, pistachios, and strawberries were reconfigured in a pleasing way for dessert.
Hungry had a difficult day and worked later than anticipated. When he arrived it was clear he needed to unwind (we had long moved past the first date stage so when he was tired, it was easily recognizable to me). The arrangement was a match made in heaven because Hungry could unwind watching a game, eating the tart I made earlier and I could finish cooking undisturbed. We would reconvene for dinner. Hungry happy. Chef happy. All good.
Before I jump to dinner let me give you a little background on Hungry and food. Hungry is a vegetarian. I grew up as a vegetarian so a vegetarian menu is not so foreign to me although in my adult life (personally as well as professionally) I cook and I enjoy all types of protein, including things most Americans would shutter at eating (and, yes, I enjoy foie gras with moderate regularity). Cooking for Hungry eliminates categories of potential menu options. However, Hungry enjoys fish (especially sushi) but there is a “catch:” Hungry does not like fish with heads… or tails…or bones … or any evidence that the fish was actually anything other than a lean, rectangular piece of protein on his plate. No problem. I can do this.
I received two beautiful Loup-de-Mer in my fish delivery that afternoon that were begging to be dinner. My plan was to grill them whole (in a stealth-like manner), fillet them in the kitchen and plate them in a non-once living presentation. The fact that hungry was watching the game made my sneakiness quite easy. I seasoned the fish, wrapped them in fresh thyme, bay leaves and citrus, bound with kitchen twine. Gorgeous ! I grilled them (even more gorgeous post-grill!) then removed the flesh from the skin and bones in the kitchen.
We sat down to eat and it was now very dark but the multitude of white candles on the table as well as the pool light cast the evening sky in a romantic glow. All good. Hungry compliments me on the tart, the table, and a few other things (hee hee). All very good. We begin to eat and I notice that his eating slows and he is now pushing the fish around on his plate. What followed went something like this:
“What’s the matter? I inquire.
“Nothing.” He says.
“Not true. You don’t like the fish ? ”
“That’s okay, you don’t like the taste?”
“No, it tastes fine… it’s just that there are a couple of bones in here.”
“Really? I am sorry… I was so careful with your plate.”
There they were, two small bones and I felt terrible (and in my head I am retracing my steps in the kitchen thinking that I perhaps confused the two plates). He then proceeds to tell me about a near-death choking experience in his family due to fish bones. The unnecessary explanation has only made me feel worse and slightly annoyed because the horse (so to speak) was already dead.
“I can double check your fish,” I offer.
There is silence.
“And it is slimy,” he adds.
There is what my daughters refer to as a moment of “awkward silence.”
“Excuse me?” I say.
My understanding and sympathetic expression from the two stow-away bones discovery has slid off my face. I felt it happen: my eyebrows altered and my eyes narrowed (when I practiced law my colleagues called this expression the “0-60” … it was not pretty). Ironically, had Hungry been a client, there would have been no “0-60”, the “slimy” fish would have be remedied immediately without incident, regardless of the validity of the description. However, he is not a client, we had long moved past the first date and there I was sitting next to this person whom I had taken great care to prepare dinner for on my night off, sharing one of my favorite rosés, and while I appreciated his honesty, his deliverance I felt needed some work. Had he said “could you cook this a little more, or I prefer my fish cooked more” or even “I don’t want to eat this because I am afraid there will be more bones in here and it is so darn dark I cannot really see my food and I do not want to end up in the ER like my brother…” I would have been fine and I would have cooked it more without a second thought. However, rightly or wrongly, his word choice “slimy” annoyed me, for many reasons, so I steadily said to him:
“I can assure you that the fish is perfectly cooked.”
More “awkward silence” which was only broken by:
“I’m not loving the wine either,” he adds.
Honesty overload ! The wine I was saving for a special occasion was now deemed wasted in my opinion and I was still stuck on “slimy.” I thought of the scene in No Reservations in which Catherine Zeta-Jones, playing a chef, marches out to the dining room and stabs her chef’s knife through a steak and the table of two customers who had complained that the steak was not properly cooked. There were no knives nearby but the thought of tossing both him and his plate into the pool (and drinking the rosé myself) admittedly cross my mind. In my mind I am now obsessed with the thought that if Hungry does not understand or appreciate food, French food or wine as much as I do or in a similar way, he will never understand me and this pairing is doomed to fail. “We are going to do great in France,” I say, the sarcasm and disappointment in my tone is recognizable.
Clearly the evening did not go as planned. Dessert was served, but not on a plate. Hungry was still hungry (although he never would have said so) and I did not care. Ah, the differences between men and women and the joy of dating. We have all been there. The fish really wasn’t the issue. People are imperfect.
A few weeks later Hungry and I went to a concert with another couple. The man and I talked food and he, as a single father, told me how much he loved cooking with his boys and that he wanted to cook fish for them but it never came out right. Hungry and I exchanged a glance and smiled thinking of the “slimy” al fresco dinner. However, the man’s request inspired this post because the truth is that cooking fish at home intimidates people and their fear of undercooking the fish always leads to overcooking it (do not worry, many restaurants are guilty of this too).
I tell my students to respect your product and prepare it accordingly. Cooking fish is different than cooking meat because fish flesh is structurally and texturally different than poultry or red meat. Fish flesh is more delicate. It is comprised of muscle sheets (myotones) which are separated by thin layers of connective tissue (myosepta). When fish is properly cooked (for cod, for example, to “a medium”) the flesh color will be opaque and no longer translucent. The appearance will be “flaky” because the thin connective tissue holding the muscle sheets together have begun to dissolve, giving the separating flesh a “flaky” appearance. However, you do not want the flesh completely falling apart or oozing white goo because then the fish is overcooked.
Steaming and poaching fish are the most forgiving techniques with respect to fish (keeping them moist). Preparing fish en papillote is a perfect way to cook fish fillets. The fish is steamed in its own moisture which is trapped by parchment paper. The fillets comes out moist and not overdone. The fish is done because parchment begins to brown.
The classic approach is to cut the paper in a heart shape, fold it in the middle (so when you close it, it looks like a butterfly wing) and crimp the edges of the paper to form a tight seal. However, if you want to avoid the cutting and crimping, you can simply fold the top of a rectangular piece of parchment paper to create a seal and use kitchen twine to close either side. You can be creative as you would like with the paper design (i.e., a treat-or-treat bag for Halloween or the shape of a whale). Whatever the package, the key is creating a seal so steam does not escape.
En papillote is not only an easy and fun method (also a great project for children) but versatile. While this recipe uses only fresh thyme and olive oil (to show you how easy it can be), you can add other seasoning, herbs, and even vegetables (or couscous) to steam with your fish. If you want to use a sauce for flavor the fish, I suggest using a sauce with a thicker sauce consistency otherwise if it is too thin (i.e., plain soy sauce or wine) it will run out everywhere when you cut open the paper and even make the paper soggy in the meantime. Honey, olive oil, rosemary and a little soy sauce with fresh ginger is a nice combination that is easy and children love.
And what happened with Hungry ? I did prepare fish for Hungry again (no complaint of slimy), the rosé was skipped, and dessert was served on a plate. Hungry did not join me in France and when I was gone I asked him if he was eating well. He smiled and told me that he was no longer hungry, but “starving.” That may have been the case, but to me, he will always be just “Hungry.”
et bon appétit !