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Culinary serendipity takes many forms, not the least of which is sparking ideas for using small amounts of leftovers. On a recent day, my refrigerator and freezer produced a 7-ounce raw filet of John Dory, 3 ounces of raw shrimp, and 4 ounces of mushrooms.

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With an open container of heavy cream also available, inspiration for dinner was easy: something classically French. Julia Child to the rescue, with her poached fish recipes in the first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. From the book’s five major recipes, five variations, and five suggested shellfish garnitures, I chose almost the simplest, Filets de Poisson Bercy aux Champignons.

Scaling down the recipe to serve two instead of six required some adjustments. I also took a few shortcuts for further simplicity, hoping that Julia wouldn’t disapprove. For example, the shrimp for the garnish were to be first boiled for five minutes in a stock made from wine, water, onion, carrot, celery, parsley, bay leaf, thyme, tarragon, and peppercorns; then tossed in a pan with butter, seasonings, and wine.

I couldn’t see doing all that for my eight little shrimp. I just boiled them for two minutes in salted water, then sauteed them briefly in butter with minced shallots and thyme. I sliced the mushrooms and also sauteed them in butter for a few minutes.

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The fish filet was to be poached in a 350° oven. I strewed minced shallots in a shallow baking dish; laid in the fish filet topped with salt, pepper, and more shallots; poured in enough wine and water to cover the filet; and dotted butter over all.

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Now I was supposed to bring the dish to a simmer on top of the stove before covering it with a sheet of buttered wax paper and putting it in the oven. But I couldn’t: my only baking dish small enough not to surround the filet with too much liquid couldn’t take a direct flame. So the poaching took quite a bit longer than the recipe expected. I worried a bit, but gentle cooking rarely harms a fish, and eventually a fork could pierce the flesh easily, which meant the fish was done.

At that point I realized I had another problem. The poaching instructions that I’d followed had been in a separate master recipe, which didn’t have mushrooms. When I returned to my Bercy recipe, I saw that I ought to have included the mushrooms in the poaching. Oops! Oh, well – it was a pity that my mushrooms couldn’t exchange flavors with the poaching liquid, but they’d just have to join the dish later.

I gently removed the fish to a plate, poured its liquid into a small pot, and boiled it down to about half a cup’s worth. I stirred in a flour-and-butter paste and then heavy cream. Brought the sauce to a boil, seasoned it with salt, pepper, and lemon juice, and folded in the shrimps and mushrooms.

Back into its baking dish went the fish filet, and all the sauce and garnishes over and around it. The recipe also called for more dots of butter, but since the dish had already received almost a stick of butter and half a cup of cream (!), I decided to skip that.
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All this was done in the afternoon. In the evening I sprinkled grated parmigiano (instead of gruyere) over the fish in its sauce and reheated the dish under the broiler. Again, because I couldn’t first reheat it on top of the stove, it took a longer time in the broiler – about 10 minutes to warm it through. It hadn’t browned as much as it should, but I was afraid to overcook the fish, so I took it out and served it.
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It was wonderful – even after my shortcuts and alterations. The John Dory was excellent, as always. The mushrooms had – amazingly, given their short time in the sauce – absorbed all the goodness of fish, shrimp, and cream. The sauce itself was silk and velvet on the tongue, and it tasted like the sweet-salt soul of the sea.

Being something of a partisan of Italian cooking approaches, I hardly ever make classic French dishes any more, but this one reminded me of what I’d been missing. Maybe it’s time to revisit them occasionally.
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Incidentally, Beloved Spouse poured a relatively simple white Burgundy with this dish – a Côte de Nuits Villages – and the combination was delightful.

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Tom and I are back from the birding trip to Costa Rica that I mentioned in my last post. Our very modest expectations for its gastronomical aspects were right on target: The food was fresh and flavorful, but there was a very narrow range of both ingredients and preparations.

Unexpectedly, breakfast was the meal we most enjoyed. At home, our breakfasts tend to be minimal (except on Sundays), but after arising at 5 am to spend the first hours of daylight out looking at birds, the prospect of coming in to a hearty breakfast is mighty attractive. As I said last week, the rice-and-bean dish called gallo pinto is an inescapable part of a Costa Rican breakfast. Here are a few that we had:

Gallo pinto, scrambled eggs, potato cakes, sausages

Gallo pinto, scrambled eggs, potato cakes, sausages

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Fried eggs, gallo pinto, plantains, ham & cheese sandwich, potato cake

Fried eggs, gallo pinto, plantains, ham & cheese sandwich, potato cake

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Gallo pinto, scrambled eggs, bananas, beef with mushrooms

Gallo pinto, scrambled eggs, bananas, beef with mushrooms

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For lunches on the road in rustic country restaurants, we always received casado, the archetypical Costa Rican mixed plate of rice, beans, plantains, and another vegetable or salad, surrounding a piece of protein – usually a choice of fish or chicken. The fish was often trout, sometimes tilapia, both of which are extensively farmed in the fast-running streams of the rain forests. Chicken seems to be the de facto national bird of Costa Rica (which, officially, is the clay-colored thrush). Though it was always good, I came to believe that most Costa Rican chickens were born legless – a disappointment to this dark-meat fancier. Dinners at the lodges where our birding group stayed were buffet-style, with only minor day-to-day variations on the same or similar food choices. (Tom has made me swear not to serve him chicken for at least the next month.) Some examples:

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Trout, beans, rice, plantains, cabocha squash, salad

Trout, beans, rice, plantains, cabocha squash, salad

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Tilapia, rice, beans, plantain, cabocha squash, salad

Tilapia, rice, beans, plantain, cabocha squash, salad

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Chicken berast, plantains, rice, beans, tomatoes, vegetable frittata, tortilla

Chicken breast, plantains, rice, beans, tomato salad, vegetable frittata, arepa

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So, all in all, the food on our trip was sustaining rather than exciting. But exciting the birding definitely was. In one week we saw nearly 200 species, including quetzals, trogons, motmots, toucans, parrots, aracaris, oropendolas, cotingas, manakins, honeycreepers, flower-piercers, and 23 different kinds of hummingbirds. Here we are at the end of an aerial tram ride through the rain forest. Quite a change from our usual urban life!

Aerial tram 1

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Filet of John Dory

“John Dory” is an odd name for a kind of fish, and the John Dory is an odd-looking kind of fish. Even its scientific name is odd: Zeus faber, a Greek god with a Latin attribute that means maker or artisan.

John Dory drawing

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In other languages, it’s named for the patron saint of fishermen: Saint Pierre, San Pietro, San Pedro. That black spot on its side in the image (which is from Alan Davidson’s book Mediterranean Seafood) is supposedly the saint’s thumbprint. A medium-sized, vertically flattened, slow-swimming predator, it has sharp spines for protection, eyes set well forward for binocular vision, and a protrusible jaw for ingesting its snuck-up-upon prey.

It’s also a delicious fish. A perfectly grilled whole San Pedro – beautifully fresh, pulled out of the Mediterranean that morning – that a restaurant in Barcelona served to Tom and me three years ago still lives on my mind’s palate, as well as in my vacation photo files.

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I’ve never seen a whole John Dory, with its huge head still on, for sale in this country, but on the rare occasions when filets are available in my fish market I always snatch some. The flesh is very fine grained and the skin smooth and shiny.

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two filets

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A few of my cookbooks have recipes featuring John Dory, but I find them all overelaborate. For me, John Dory is so rich-tasting and so distinctive that smothering it with vegetables and cream sauces, herbs and spices, is too much gilding of the lily. A sprinkling of salt, a dusting of flour, and a gentle sauté in butter are all that are needed to bring up its own pure goodness.

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in the pan

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The most I ever do in addition is, occasionally, deglaze the sauté pan with a splash of white wine or white vermouth and pour that over the plated filets. Believe me, that is paradise enow.

By and large, I believe that the best way to cook any fish is as simply as possible. I want to preserve the integrity, intensity, and delicacy that are the natural characteristics of prime, fresh fish. Of all the various sea creatures that we humans consume, none rewards simplicity more than the exuberantly shaped, insidiously delicious John Dory.

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fish plated

 

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I’m just back from my birding trip in the Yucatan and haven’t started serious cooking yet. So this week I’ll write about some of the good things I ate there.

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One dish I was particularly looking for was pollo en escabeche, to see how the recipe I’d tried here, just before the trip, would compare. I found this Valladolid specialty in a restaurant in that city. It looked nothing like the one I’d made, and it tasted much, much better than mine.

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The chicken had been cut in strips after its poaching, spice rub, and sautéeing. There were large chunks of sweet onion, strips of pink pickled onion, and one whole large yellow chile xcatique, which was much hotter than the little yellow peppers I’d used. The broth was dark brown, full-flavored, and lightly speckled from the spice paste, with only a hint of the vinegar that had been so strong in mine. I have to admit that mine was only a crude approximation of the real thing. I don’t know whether to blame my recipe, my ingredients, or myself.

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On Thanksgiving Day I had turkey for dinner, semi-traditionalist that I am. Pavo en negro was a far cry, however, from the familiar North American holiday bird. The turkey may have been originally roasted, but then it was shredded and served in a black sauce along with a slice of (also perhaps-roasted) pork loin and a halved hard-boiled egg. From the name I was expecting the sauce to be a thick mole, but it wasn’t. As I’ve since learned from Rick Bayless’s book Authentic Mexican, it’s a Yucatan specialty based on a paste made from chiles burnt black, ground achiote seeds, Mexican oregano, black pepper, cloves, cumin, garlic, and vinegar.

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For all that assertive spicing and almost shocking appearance, the dish was remarkably subtle, and the smooth, flavorful sauce seemed to get even better as it cooled. I wiped up every last bit of it with fresh tortillas.

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One evening Tom and I shared a first course of papadzules. This Yucatan specialty consists of fresh tortillas moistened with a sauce of pumpkin seeds, rolled around a filling of crumbled hard-boiled eggs, and topped with a tomato sauce with a touch of habanero chile. In The Cuisines of Mexico, Diana Kennedy calls it one of the most beautiful of Mexican dishes. Mine, eaten in a very simple restaurant in the town of Felipe Carrillo Puerto, was not very impressive to look at but was surprisingly delicious.

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That same restaurant gave me another excellent dish: pollo en pibil. Pibil is the word for the Yucatan style of pit barbecuing, though the same effect can be achieved on an indoor stove. My chicken had been marinated in bitter orange juice and spices including achiote (which gives it a rich golden-red color), then wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. It was among the best-flavored chicken preparations in this passionate chicken lover’s memory.

pibil

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Just one anticipated culinary pleasure was denied me. I’d been hoping for pulpo – octopus. Just about every menu listed it, but not a single place had any. We were told it was because of high winds following a cold front (from the same storm that caused so much trouble in the Midwest last week), which made it impossible for the fishing boats to bring in any octopi. As a consolation, for dinner on my last night, in Cozumel, I had a combinación de mariscos: grilled shrimp, lobster, and fish, all totally fresh and delicious. Not a bad way to end a trip.

mariscos 1

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Here are a few of the other dishes that we ate. Clockwise from upper right, gambas a la plancha, pescado a la veracruzana, cocteil de concha, huevos rancheros, tacos de pescado, menestra.

yucatan dishes-01

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