Rainbow Trout in Court-Bouillon
After a difficult few months helping my mother at the end of her life, my husband and I promised each other we would get away for a few days to completely de-stress and unplug after the initial grieving and memorial service were behind us. For a quick fix, there is nothing like a spa retreat. Surprisingly, we found a highly-rated spa in the Poconos, a mere three hours from where we live.
When you read about the European spa experience—let’s say the kind that James Beard sought out when his health began to fail and he needed to follow a slimming diet with strict oversight—it seems a bit grim. No one ever went because they were hoping to indulge in a rich culinary experience. People went to slim down, take mineral baths day and night and lay off the alcohol. This is what they called “taking the cure”.
Maybe the European spa experience has changed since the days when James Beard checked himself into one hoping to set himself on a more moderate dietary course, but in any case, it was our experience that there was a tacit understanding that improving one’s mind-body balance ended at around 5:30 each evening when the bar and restaurant opened for guests. After a long day of yoga, meditation, spinning classes or a massage, what one needs is a decent martini or glass of wine.
The gastronomic offerings notwithstanding, The Lodge at Woodloch, nestled in the woods by a small lake, looked like the kind of mountainous retreat the Europeans might have frequented for “the cure”. Maybe that’s why I kept thinking about M.F.K. Fisher who wrote many stories about her travels in Europe and the food she ate. In a collection I read recently, entitled As They Were, it seemed as if everywhere she went she describes a marvelous meal which featured trout. And since I was in the Poconos, by a lake (and probably near a stream) I figured trout would certainly be forthcoming. I couldn’t get the idea of trout out of my head.
When I lived in Europe, I only remember eating trout once in a restaurant in the Ardennes, a short hop by car from Brussels. I went there one day with our elderly Belgian neighbors and their adult daughter who was my age. It was a lovely outing in the countryside that included a stop for lunch where we all ordered the trout. I recall that it had been pan fried and was swimming in a pool of good butter with a few boiled potatoes on the side (or maybe it was pommes frîtes—it was Belgium after all). I can still taste the flaky flesh of the trout enhanced by all that delicious butter.
Still, it was not the truite au bleu that M.F.K. Fisher described in her story, “I Was Really Very Hungry” about an enormous quantity of food she consumed at a little inn in Burgundy one day while she was out on a long walk by herself. I have read that story several times in different collections over the years and I still can’t quite figure out how she managed to eat and drink so much in one sitting. After a series of eight starters that included pickled herring, broiled endive, a little salad of herbed green lentils, and some baked onions, Fisher was pressed to eat “a good slice of [the chef’s] pâté before moving on to the main course, the trout. (All while working on an entire bottle of vintage Chablis I hasten to add.)
Finally, it was time for the trout, which the earnest and solicitous waitress produced to Ms. Fisher tableside, alive and swimming in a bucket, before Monsieur Paul (the chef) worked his blue magic on it.
“Here is the trout, Madame. You are to eat it au bleu, and you should never do so if you had not seen it alive. For if the trout were dead when it was plunged in the court bouillon it would not turn blue. So, naturally, it must be living.”
Contemplating the method, Fisher inquires, “What about the trout? Do you take out is guts before or after?”
“Oh the trout!” [The server] sounded scornful. “Any trout is glad, truly glad, to be prepared by Monsieur Paul. His little gills are pinched, with one flash of the knife he is empty, and then he curls in agony in the bouillon and all is over. And it is the curl you must judge, Madame. A false truite au bleu cannot curl.”
Our earnest and solicitous server then returns in a flash “with the trout correctly blue and agonizingly curled on a platter, and on her crooked arm a plate of tiny boiled potatoes and a bowl.”
(Let us pause for a moment to consider the trout’s final moments. The French can be exquisitely nonchalant about their food preparation.)
The meal—as you might have guessed—did not stop there, but for me it was the trout that stuck with me. It was that I was thinking of the first day we dined at our Pocono retreat. So eager was I to tuck into a well-prepared fresh trout that when I glanced at the dinner menu that first evening I missed the word ‘salmon’ before ‘trout’ and was sorely disappointed when the dish arrived looking pink (and not at all blue).
Of course, I had been introduced to trout long before I lived in Europe. One of my most memorable meals of trout comes from my childhood. It was considerably more humble than anything M.F.K. Fisher would have eaten—more camp-style than spa-like—but certainly among the best trout I have ever eaten.
It took place on a family vacation in Colorado Springs where we had rented a modest cabin within a vacation compound. One day my father, who used to spend his boyhood summers up in Canada at his family’s cabin, offered to take me and my sisters trout fishing. I stood next to my sister in ankle-deep water for several hours while she pulled in trout after trout and I came up completely short. I got madder and madder as the day wore on and ended the outing in a complete stew of sibling rivalry.
But what made it all go away was my father who made short work of cleaning and gutting the fish and then effortlessly went on to prepare a simple meal of pan-fried whole trout with onions and bacon. All was right with the world. It was one of those childhood moments when you observe your father doing something out of his daily routine at which he proves absolutely expert and in wonderment you begin to question, “Who is this man masquerading as my father?” Maybe it was the freshness of the trout or maybe it was just a swelling love for my father who stepped out of his usual role to cook us a meal, but it has remained one of my fondest food memories.
The rainbow trout I finally ate at the spa in the Poconos didn’t even come close. As it turned out, the local trout I was craving was on the lunch menu, not the dinner menu. When it arrived, it was meager and sad looking, despite the colorful plate decorations. And it was overcooked, which is the death knell for fish.
Once home, I was on a mission to create my own memorable trout dinner to wipe away my disappointing meal in the Poconos. All the while M.F.K. Fisher was trailing me in my quest.
My first inclination—as is my wont—was to pull out my well-worn copy of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I was surprised to learn she was silent on the subject. Nor did she touch on it in Mastering Volume II. Huh, I thought. Is trout a dish that Julia really felt was either too tricky to master or not worthy of the effort?
From there I went straight to my copy of Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking (after all Elizabeth David—in my mind at least—was the English equivalent of Julia Child, not to mention her contemporary). And there it was, an unequivocal dismissal of trout.
She begins by quoting Jean Giono, author of La France à Table who wrote, “With the exception of truite au bleu nobody knows how to cook a trout. It is the most unfortunate fish on earth.” And then for good measure, Elizabeth David adds her own withering commentary: “…I must admit I would never go out of my way either to buy these fish or to order them in a restaurant.” Ouch!
Still, she provides a recipe for Les Truites à la Manière Alsacienne (she translates this as Trout in Court-Bouillon) which set me on my course to a very happy meal that left me wondering why anyone would think trout an unworthy fish.
I managed to find some good, fresh Pocono rainbow trout at my local specialty grocery store, made my own version of a court-bouillon (a quick broth of white wine, water, bay leaf, parsley and lemon peel that serves as an aromatic bath in which to poach the fish) sautéed some fresh breadcrumbs in good butter and a sprinkling of fresh parsley to serve on top of the fish (in the Alsatian manner) and voilà, a meal so delicious I felt M.F.K. Fisher herself would have given me a nod of approval.
The combination of the crunchy, buttery breadcrumbs atop the delicate, perfumed trout was superb. Even better, it took very little effort. When I finally looked up from my plate after I took my last bite I smiled widely at my husband and said, “We’re having this again!”
And so ends my trout odyssey.
Trout in Court-Bouillon
When I read Elizabeth David’s loosely written instructions for this dish that was lifted directly from the cookbook, La Table by Gaston Thierry written in 1932, a lightbulb went off in my head. Cooking fish in a court-bouillon I knew to be dead easy. I was taught how to do it years ago when I studied cooking with Henri-Étienne Lévi in New York. I always thought cooking a trout was complicated. Sure, my father did it, but I had never cooked a whole fish before and was unsure how to judge for doneness. I figured it was a skill best learned from someone who has done it before and my father is now well beyond teaching me. But a filet cooked in a court-bouillon, now that was something I did understand. The mystery of cooking my own trout had been revealed. I will also say that the notion of serving the trout with a good coating of fresh breadcrumbs browned in butter and parsley gives the feeling of pan-fried fish flavored by butter without the mess. It is the perfect enhancement for a fish as delicate as trout.
For my version of Trout in Court-Bouillon I consulted my notes from cooking class all those years ago and read my notation that when making a court-bouillon, white wine should never be more than 1/3 of the liquids.
2 Fresh filets of rainbow trout, about 1 pound total (from one whole fish—deboned, head and tail removed)
For the Court-Bouillon:
1 Cup dry white wine
3 Cups water
½ small onion, thinly sliced
1 bay leaf
3 strips of lemon peel
1 small bunch fresh parsley tied with kitchen string
1 sprig of fresh thyme
½ teaspoon coarsely crushed black peppercorns
For the Breadcrumb Topping:
1 Cup fresh breadcrumbs from a good sourdough or French country loaf
2 Tablespoons butter
2 Tablespoons chopped flat leaf parsley
Salt to taste
A sauté pan wide enough to hold 2 filets. (Mine is a 12-inch pan.) If you don’t have one, you can poach the fish in a pan in the oven at 300˚. The idea is to cook the filets in a single layer whether on the stove or in the oven.
Make the court-bouillon by combining all the ingredients in a sauce pan (or the pan you will use for poaching the fish on the stove). Bring to a boil and continue to boil for ten minutes. Let cool and then strain the solids out.
While the court-bouillon is cooling make the breadcrumb topping. Melt the butter in a sauté pan over medium heat. When the butter is foaming, toss in the breadcrumbs and stir frequently until the breadcrumbs are golden brown. Add the parsley and mix again. Salt to taste. Turn off the heat and cook the fish.
When you are ready to cook the fish, pour the court-bouillon into the cooking pan, slip the filets in the pan, skin side down and cover the fish with waxed paper coated with butter. (Trace the wax paper with the lid from your pan to get it to fit properly.) The court-bouillon should just barely cover the fish—about ½ inch up the side of the pan.
Cover the pan turn the heat to medium high and bring the court-bouillon up to a simmer. Adjust the heat and continue to simmer the fish for about five minutes. Remove fish immediately to a platter or serving plate and place a few slivers of unsalted butter on top of the flesh, then sprinkle the browned breadcrumbs on top. Serve immediately. Boiled new potatoes are a good accompaniment to the fish. As is a good, cool white Burgundy (just like M.F.K. Fisher drank ).