Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Time for some Sole-Searching

Sole is a group of flatfish from European coastal waters that can be somewhat hard to locate here in the US. Lucky for me, I have a great fishmonger that stocks it regularly and especially during lent. Lent is a great time to be purchasing fish, as grocers overstock and sell them at almost rock bottom prices. When looking for sole, seek out Dover sole. Dover sole is the most esteemed of the sole family, with a delicate sweet flavor and thin yet firm fillets that hold together very well during cooking. According to Fish Market: A Cookbook for Selecting and Preparing Seafood, by Kathy Hunt, the ancient Romans loved this delicate oval flatfish and called it "solea jovi," meaning "Jupiter's sandal," referring to the king of their gods, Jupiter. Sole is a reference to the Old English term sole or solu, meaning shoe, sandal, or sole. In addition, Dover sole were named after Dover, England, because it was the fishing port that landed the most sole in the 19th century.

This recipe for "Sole with Spinach (Sole aux Epinards)" from My French Kitchen, by Joanne Harris and Fran Warde, is simplicity at its best. The slight bitterness of the wilted greens contrasts nicely to the buttery sweetness of the sole and the creamy shallot sauce is to die for! Not only is this recipe fast and easy, it is perfect for a simple yet elegant multi-course menu. I would start the meal with a small starter, like a small bowl or teacup of Spring Pea Soup or Carrot and Cumin Soup, or a tiny plate of Stuffed Mushroom Caps. I would then dazzle my guests with this recipe and a crusty baguette. For dessert, a beautiful small bowl of Bouchon Strawberry Sorbet or Ginger, Lemon, and Mint Granita will leave you and your guests extremely gratified! Now it's time for you to do some sole-searching!

Sole with Spinach (Sole aux Epinards)

Serves 4-6


8 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 shallots, diced
Drizzle of olive oil
12 sole fillets (Sizes may vary, so approximately 1 1/2 pounds for 4 people and 2 1/4 pounds for 6 people should suffice.)
2 pounds spinach, trimmed and washed
1/3 cup heavy cream
Sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Lemon juice, to serve


Heat the broiler. Lightly oil the broiler rack and put it in the broiler for a few minutes to heat.

Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon of the butter in a medium saucepan, add the shallots, and cook gently for 10 minutes over low heat. Do not allow them to color.

Twist the sole fillets and place them on the heated broiler rack - you should hear them sizzle as they touch it. Broil for 4 to 5 minutes, them remove them. Turn the broiler off.

Place the spinach in a large saucepan with 3 tablespoons of water and cook about 3 minutes, stirring frequently. The spinach should soften and warm but retain its shape and texture. (If it wilts more, that's okay.) Put the spinach in a lightly buttered baking dish or oven safe platter and arrange the sole fillets on top. Place in the turned-off broiler to keep warm. 

Add the cream, salt, and pepper to the shallots and bring to a simmer. Cut the remaining 7 tablespoons of butter into small pieces and whisk a few pieces at a time into the simmering cream. When all the butter is added you should have a glossy sauce. Pour the sauce over the spinach and sole and finish with a squeeze of lemon. Serve immediately!

Friday, February 17, 2023

Mardis Gras and the Best Jambalaya!

Mardis Gras (aka., Fat Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday) is February 21, marking the last day of fatty food indulgences before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. While some people around the world celebrate the day eating pancakes, I prefer a delicious bowl of jambalaya! I first acquired a taste for this spicy sausage and seafood-laden dish from a friend in college who made a batch along with freshly baked bread every Sunday. Although I think he used Zatarain's and a tube of Pillsbury, it was always a good time! Just like chili is in Texas, jambalaya is classic Louisiana party food, making it the perfect choice for Mardis Gras!

Jambalaya is a dish steeped in ambiguity. So much so, you can stir up heated discussions regarding just the root of the word "jambalaya!" One theory is that it comes from the Provencal word "jambalaia," meaning mishmash or mixture. Another theory is that it comes from the Spanish word "jamon," meaning ham, combined with "paella," the classic Spanish rice dish. The third theory is that it comes from the French "jambon," meaning ham, with a contraction of "a la" and "ya," the African word for rice. And finally, it might come from the Native American Atakapa tribe's saying, "Sham, pal ha! Ya!" meaning "Be full, not skinny! Eat up!" 

If that's not enough, contrary to popular misconceptions, jambalaya is not specifically a Creole dish. In fact, there are two kinds of jambalaya. Creole which contains tomatoes, and Cajun which does not. I prefer it with tomatoes. I also think the key to a really great jambalaya is tasso. Tasso is a highly seasoned smoked pork. I am lucky to find it locally, but you can order some from Andouille sausage is also authentic; however, if you can't find it or don't want to add it to your Cajun Grocer order, you can substitute Spanish chorizo, not Mexican chorizo, which is not the same thing. Finally, I would be remiss not to mention "the holy trinity." Similar to mirepoix and sofrito, it is the base to most Louisiana cuisine. It consists of finely diced onion, celery, and green bell pepper. I use red bell pepper because I detest green bell peppers in any form. 

Just like cioppino, it's hard to make a bad jambalaya. Jambalaya is very adaptable and can contain shredded chicken, venison, oysters, etc. Feel free to add what you have on hand, or prefer, to make it your own! If it gets too thick, just add some water! So celebrate Mardis Gras this year with a delicious bowl of jambalaya, lots of crusty bread, cold beer, and a bottle of Tabasco (or Crystal) hot sauce. Beads optional!

Sausage and Shrimp Jambalaya

Serves 8

1/2 cup tasso (or chopped ham), 1/4-inch dice
14 ounces Andouille (or Spanish chorizo, or other smoked sausage), 1/2-inch slices
1/2 cup onions, chopped
1/2 cup celery, chopped
1/2 cup red bell pepper (or green), chopped
1 large garlic clove, minced
28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes
2 cups chicken stock
1 teaspoon Cajun seasoning 
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon cayenne, or more to taste
1 teaspoon salt
2 bay leaves
1 cup long grain rice
1 pound raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
Italian parsley, chopped for garnish

In a large pot or dutch oven, brown the sausage on each side in batches, set aside. Add the tasso, onions, celery, and bell pepper to the pot and saute until tender. Add the garlic and cook one minute. Add the tomatoes (with can juice), stir and break up with a wooden spoon. (An old-fashioned potato masher works great too!) Add the stock, browned sausage, Cajun seasoning, thyme, cayenne, salt, and bay leaves. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer 30 minutes. Remove the cover and raise heat to a boil. Add the rice, stir, cover and reduce heat to a simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. (Taste the rice to make sure it's done!) Remove the lid and add the shrimp. Cook for 5 minutes or until the shrimp are cooked through. Remove the bay leaves and serve with a garnish of parsley. Add hot sauce to taste at the table, along with crusty bread.

Monday, February 13, 2023

The Birth of Aphrodite

Botticelli Birth of Venus 450x230 Botticellis Birth of Venus
Birth of Venus, by Sandro Botticelli, c. 1484-86
Botticelli's Birth of Venus is my favorite painting from the Italian Renaissance. Venus, in all her naked glory, is depicted riding to shore on a scallop shell and sea foam, being blown by Zephyrus (who is carrying the nymph Chloris) to be greeted by Pomona, the goddess of Spring. Venus's beauty was so great that wherever she stepped flowers would bloom and sand would turn to grass. Impressive! Venus embodies love, beauty, sex, fertility and prosperity in Roman mythology. She is also known as Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, beauty, pleasure, and procreation. But do you know the story of her birth?

According to Hesiod's poem, Theogony, Gaia was the primal Greek Mother Goddess, creator of the Earth and all the Universe. Gaia created and married Uranus (primal Greek God of the sky) and had many children. Some of the children became the Titans, three were cyclopes, and three were monsters known as "hecatonchires" (which had 100 arms and 50 heads each), some became giants, and the youngest child, a Titan, was named Cronus. Uranus could not bear the sight of his hideous children, specifically the cyclopes and hecatonchires, and hid them away in the bowels of the earth. Well, Gaia wasn't too happy with this and set out for revenge. She created a flint sickle and with the help of Cronus set up a trap. As Uranus was coming to join Gaia, Cronos castrated him and threw his "stuff" into the sea. The sea began to bubble and foam "from the immortal flesh" and "with it a girl grew." Yes, it was Aphrodite, whose name means "risen from the foam." Wow and gross! That would make an interesting family tree!

Anyway, it was the birth of Aphrodite/Venus gliding on a scallop shell that has given scallops their aphrodisiac reputation. In fact, scallops are believed to raise sexual hormones in men and women, and have the ability to elevate moods! Check and check! This exquisite recipe, from Chef Eric Brenner, for "Seared Scallops, Saffron Risotto and Beurre Blanc" is the perfect Valentine meal! Luscious sweet scallops, served on a bed of creamy saffron risotto, and a generous drizzle of the best damn beurre blanc I've ever tasted is sexy, elegant, and extremely romantic! In addition, you will need to enlist the help of your mate to stir the risotto while you finish the rest! Cooking together is sexy! So, light the candles, pour some wine, and let the pleasure begin!   

Seared Scallops, Saffron Risotto and Beurre Blanc

Serves 4 (I have halved this recipe with great success, if you prefer dinner for two!)

For the Beurre Blanc
1 lemon
1 bay leaf
1 shallot, minced
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons white wine
2 tablespoons white vinegar
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 pound (8 tablespoons) butter, softened

For the Saffron Risotto
1 pinch saffron
2 quarts chicken stock
2 tablespoons butter, divided
1/4 cup minced shallots
2 cups Arborio rice
1/2 cup white wine
1/4 cup fresh peas
Kosher salt and pepper, to taste

For the Scallops
12 dry-packed sea scallops
Kosher salt
3 tablespoons olive oil

Remove and discard the side muscle from the scallops. Set the scallops on a paper towel and allow to come to room temperature while you make the beurre blanc and risotto.

For the Beurre Blanc
Remove the zest from the lemon with a vegetable peeler and place in a small saucepan. Add the juice of the lemon. Place the bay leaf, shallot, wine and vinegar in the saucepan and reduce by half. Add the cream and reduce to less than 1/4 cup. Remove from the heat, strain into another small pan and gradually whisk in the softened butter. Don't let the sauce go over 130 degrees. Do no try to reheat or refrigerate the sauce. (Sounds tricky, but it's not. You can do it!)

For the Saffron Risotto
In a saucepan, combine the saffron and chicken stock and set over low heat until almost simmering. In a medium saucepot, melt 1 tablespoon butter. Add the shallots and saute until translucent. Add the rice and saute until lightly toasted, but not browned. Add the white wine and cook, stirring, until evaporated. Slowly incorporate the chicken stock a few ladles at a time, stirring constantly, until reduced and the rice is tender. (This can take anywhere from 25-40 minutes. Taste, taste, taste!) When tender, fold in the remaining tablespoon of butter with a rubber spatula. Fold in the peas and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve right away.

For the Scallops
Just before you think your risotto is almost ready, lightly season one side of the scallops with the salt. Heat a heavy skillet until it is screaming hot. (I use my cast iron pan!) Add the 3 tablespoons olive oil. When the oil begins to "dance" (just before smoking), place the scallops in the pan salt-side down. Cook until the scallops begin to caramelize, just a couple minutes. Flip the scallops and immediately remove the pan from the heat. The heat of the pan will cook the scallops through in about 3 to 4 minutes. 

To Plate
Place a 1/2-3/4 cup risotto onto each serving plate. Top each with three scallops. Spoon the sauce around the perimeter of each plate.

Recipe slightly adapted from Chef Eric Brenner.

Saturday, February 11, 2023

Montezuma, Casanova, and Chocolat

Chocolate has long been recognized for it's powers with love! Aztec ruler, Montezuma, was said to have drank up to 50 "flagons" of chocolate a day to allow him to serve his many wives and lovers! Even Casanova, legendary 18th century lover, held strong beliefs in the power of chocolate! In addition to chocolate's caffeine content, it also contains PEA (phenylethylamine), which when combined with our internal stores of amphetamine heightens our sense of love! It's no wonder with chocolate's association with romance, that it would become the basis for Joanne Harris' novel Chocolat, and the charmingly romantic film adaptation Chocolat. (One of my favorites!)

This Valentine's Day, why not surprise your true love with a decadent cup of "Vianne's Spiced Hot Chocolate?" According to Joanne Harris, this recipe from her cookbook My French Kitchen, is THE recipe from the movie! With it's combination of bittersweet chocolate, vanilla, cinnamon, and red hot chile, it's guaranteed to excite your senses! Joanne suggests serving it in mugs topped with whipped cream, chocolate curls, or a dash of cognac or Amaretto (my favorite)! You can even make it ahead, store in the refrigerator, and reheat it after a lovely night out! What could be more romantic? Happy Valentine's Day!

Vianne's Spiced Hot Chocolate

Serves 2


1 2/3 cups milk (I use half-and-half.)
1/2 vanilla bean, cut in half lengthwise
1/2 cinnamon stick
1 hot red chile, stemmed, halved, seeded
3 1/2 ounces bittersweet (70 percent) chocolate (I use Ghiradelli bittersweet chips.)
Brown sugar to taste (about 2 teaspoons, or more to taste)
Whipped cream, chocolate curls, cognac, or Amaretto, to serve


Place the milk in a saucepan, add the vanilla bean, cinnamon stick, and chile, and gently bring to a shivering simmer for 1 minute. Grate the chocolate (or add the chips) and whisk it in until it melts. If you must, then add brown sugar, but do try without it. (I prefer some sugar added.) Take off the heat and allow it to infuse for 10 minutes, then remove the vanilla, cinnamon, and chile. Return to the heat and bring gently back to a simmer. (At this point, I recommend straining it to ensure it's silky smooth!) Serve in mugs topped with whipped cream, chocolate curls, or a dash of cognac or Amaretto.

Recipe from My French Kitchen, by Joanne Harris and Fran Warde.