julia child, mastering the art of french cooking, julie powell, french cuisine

Les Poissons – singing a new tune


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“The French are magnificent with fish. Not only is fresh fish abundant all year round, but the art of its cooking and saucing is accomplished with great taste and skill.” – Julia Child


"Les Poissons" - The Little Mermaid

When I was about eight years old, I went to visit my grandparents in California at the same time my aunt, uncle and cousins were visiting. After a day at Disneyland, we all came home with souvenirs – magic tricks, candy, jewelry – and one cousin had purchased the prize of the day: a book of Disney sheet music. We three kids decided it would be fun to take turns performing the songs for our grandparents, and when Jenna got up to sing Les Poissons (from The Little Mermaid), she kept mispronouncing the title. Being older and wiser, I felt it was my duty to keep correcting her, much to the annoyance of everyone else, but she eventually made it to the end of the song for a big round of applause. Then it was my turn to get up and sing. I got to the chorus and paused, and everyone applauded. They thought it was over, I thought they wanted it to be over, and I ran to my bedroom in tears. I know, I was a weird kid. The important thing is that this, my friends, is my childhood memory of Les Poissons.

So of course that was the first thing I thought of when I selected last night’s dinner menu (open the links, then click on the speaker icon for pronunciations):

I decided to start with the fish, because I figured it would take the longest to prepare. Now, I’ve always been honest with you, so today will be no different. I don’t eat fish. I don’t cook fish. It smells and tastes too…fishy. (Shellfish, however, is another story! Yum!) So I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. But Julia would talk me through it, right? I could be fearless! (Besides, I had some turkey sandwiches on stand-by in the fridge in case this went horribly, horribly wrong.) 

Over the weekend, we had bought some beautiful filets of rainbow trout from the grocery store. I had asked for “boneless, skinless filets” and wound up with a bag of fish meat with a silvery skin on one side. I didn’t think much about it until I unwrapped and it felt kind of scaly. Was this considered skinless? I began to panic. I flipped through MtAoFC, but Julia didn’t give much detail. Hm. I went to the internet, fishy fingers and all, and searched frantically for any information on skinless filets of fish. No luck. Finally I decided to play it safe and cut the meat away from the silvery skin. How hard could it be?

Here is where I could skip ahead and tell you all went well and the fish turned out lovely. But instead, I will sheepishly relay the true story.  I tried to cut the meat the way I’ve seen it done on the Food Network – but I was literally butchering these once-lovely fish filets. I held onto the silvery skin and used my (unfortunately dull) knife to try to separate the meat cleanly, but instead it came off in messy chunks. And then I realized something felt funny in my hand, and I looked down to discover I was holding onto the little flipper fin of the fish. The fins were still connected to the body! Here I was, hacking away at this poor fish, and we were holding fish hands!! I have to confess to you that it freaked. me. out. Big Time.

You know how women are portrayed in the movies when they see a mouse? Dancing and jumping in place, shaking their hands like a crazy person and shuddering with eyes rolled back in their heads while whimpering uncontrollably? Yeah, that was me. (Remember when I told you awhile back that certain animal parts freak me out? Add fish fins to that list.) And of course I felt ridiculous, but I don’t care. That meat was slimy, and the silvery scales were leaving a weird gray film on my cutting board, and all I could think was, “If I can’t even handle a dead fish, how am I going to boil a live lobster??” Let’s cross one bridge at a time, shall we?

Poached Fish in White Wine

Eventually, I had a stern conversation with myself, during which my husband’s voice came to mind – the voice he uses to talk to our cat when he takes her to the vet. “Listen,” he says forcefully, “This is happening. So just accept it.” And that’s what I told myself. I made a quick apology to the fish meat (because really, something so lovely really should have been treated more nicely) and I overcame the horror of fish fileting. In the end, I wound up with enough pieces of meat to feed a family of two. (Julia DOES say to cut into serving sizes…maybe this was what she meant after all?) I followed the recipe and poached the meat in a pan with butter, green onions and vermouth. After covering it in wax paper, I put a lid on the pan and put the whole thing in the oven. (I admit, I was skeptical – the last time I put wax paper in an oven, it melted. But who am I to challenge Julia Child? So I obeyed. She was right – it worked fine.)

Meanwhile, it was time to prepare the asparagus tips. Now, again, because there are only two of us and I am determined not to have loads of leftovers in the fridge week after week, I cut the recipe in half. And I couldn’t help thinking this blasphemous thought: This sure was a lot of work for only enough food for two people. Then I gave myself a mental slap on the wrist and continued on, cooking the veggies on the stovetop and finishing them in the butter sauce in the oven – and it was wonderful.

The rice was a last minute addition when I realized that there was barely enough asparagus to count as a side dish for two of us. (I’m used to steaming asparagus in its entirety – not only using the tips. When you only use part of something, there is less of it. Fascinating lesson, no? Next time I would make the full amount from the book.) So the rice was super easy, and it almost seemed silly to follow a recipe. (I’m sorry, Julia, but it’s true. Even a noncook such as myself has boiled rice before.) But I obeyed her directions and you know what? It came out perfectly light and fluffy.

Not everything can be perfect.

Finally it was time to take the fish out of the oven and begin working on the white wine hollandaise sauce. Listen to me very carefully. You must make this sauce. For everything. Pour it over your pancakes, drizzle it into your coffee, dip your toast into it. It is amazing!! And so easy. I took the pan with the fish and drained the juices into a separate pan. Adding butter, egg yolks and seasoning, I whisked it over heat until it thickened (I kept thinking, “This doesn’t look right,” and then all of a sudden, I blinked, and it was done. Perfect consistency. So be patient while whisking. As John Malkovich said in an SNL skit, “A great work of art doesn’t happen overnight. Unless you stay up all night working on it.”) Patience is key. Well, patience and butter.

Even more so than Sunday’s dinner, things in the kitchen got hectic toward the end. But you know what? Rather than panic, if I felt like things were getting away from me – I just took the dishes off the stove or out of the oven while I gathered my thoughts and formulated my plan. No need to panic. And the best thing of all? The food all came out looking terrific!! But…how would it taste?

Filet de Poisson Poches au Vin Blanc

We were skeptical. Again, we’re not fish fans, so I honestly didn’t expect us to eat very much of this meal. But do you know something? It was AWESOME. The fish was the perfect texture – not too dry, just flaky enough and fork-tender. And it didn’t taste too fishy at all! I suspect the white wine sauce didn’t hurt…how can anything be bad with wine and butter, I ask you? But seriously, the sauce was incredible. I served the fish on top of the rice and spooned the hollandaise over that, and the sauce really pulled it all together. The asparagus was especially tender and delicious, but again, I’m sure the braising in butter helped. We were shocked. The kitchen didn’t reek of fish, the fish didn’t taste “fishy”, and we both went back for seconds, leaving just enough leftovers for a small lunch tomorrow. (I think we’re going to fight over who gets to it first.) This meal left us both feeling completely satisfied without feeling heavy. We are now HUGE fans of trout (and even huger fans of hollandaise sauce!). If you aren’t a big fish person, I challenge you to try this recipe. It wasn’t hard (once I made a decision about how to handle the fish meat…poor little guys) and now that I know what I’m doing it wouldn’t be nearly as chaotic in the kitchen. (In all the excitement, one little egg made a break for it – literally – but other than that, no major disasters to report.)

So, between the fish, the wine sauce, the asparagus and the rice, that’s FOUR recipes we can mark off our list! We’re moving right along, wouldn’t you say? I give this meal two thumbs WAY up. As far as I’m concerned, Les Poissons has never sounded so good!

Bon appetit, indeed!


Day #2 French Lesson:
“Où sont les toilettes?”

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One Response to “Les Poissons – singing a new tune”

  1. Jessica Glunt says:

    We love trout! We toss it on the grill, skin-side down, for a few minutes. Add some rosemary and lemon, when it’s cooked the skin peels right off and it’s delicious. But the first time I tried to make it…. I got two whole freaking fish. Heads, bones, fins, everything. Totally freaked me out. I ended up crying over fish parts in the sink and making chicken that night. We’ve all been there!

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