A quick flip through any cookbook written about French cuisine will reveal generously detailed chapters dedicated to the preparation and cooking of fresh seafood. A visit to the fish markets in the port cities in coastal France is a pleasure that any curious cook will enjoy. Luckily, fishmongers can also be found in all the major cities of France, and Paris is home to several excellent markets that feature fresh seafood from independent producers, such as the Marché de la Bastille and the Marché Président Wilson. But where do you start if you’re not familiar with cooking seafood? Not everyone is comfortable bringing home live lobsters or encouraging guests to pull apart langoustines with their fingers, but fresh fish fillets are extremely simple to prepare and are always a crowd-pleaser—you just need a little extra something to jazz them up! This recipe uses two types of fish that are easily found in French farmers’ markets: monkfish and salmon, which are threaded onto skewers and then grilled. They are then topped with a classic tarragon beurre blanc, a deliciously decadent sauce that immediately elevates the dish to a new height.
Beurre blanc is a rich, creamy, emulsified butter sauce flavored with a reduction of shallots and white wine or vinegar, and plays an interesting role in the history of French cuisine. It was invented in the late 1800s in Saint-Julien-de-Concelles, a small town near Nantes, in Brittany. Legend has it that the chef Clémence Lefeuvre forgot a few key ingredients when making a béarnaise sauce to serve with fish in her restaurant, and ended up instead with what we now call a beurre blanc. It is traditionally served with freshwater fish but is excellent with all kinds of seafood, from scallops to lobster, as well as grilled or steamed vegetables.
The basic recipe for beurre blanc makes a tasty sauce, but it can be enhanced in many ways, especially with the addition of different herbs in the final stages of preparation. The tarragon in this particular version perfectly complements the distinctly flavored monkfish and salmon, but thyme and dill are also popular alternative ingredients. Beurre blanc is a classic of French cuisine and is quite simple to make, but it does need constant attention when on the stove, so it can be slightly tricky to master if you’re easily distracted. Just be sure to have some extra shallots and butter on hand in case you need to do a second batch!
1/3 cup wild rice
1 salmon fillet, boned (150 grams)
1 small monkfish tail fillet, boned (250 grams; alternatively, 1 small cod fillet or another firm white fish)
salt and pepper
1 tablespoon shallots, minced
1/2 cup dry white wine (such as Chablis, sauvignon blanc or chardonnay)
1 pinch white pepper
80 grams salted butter, cut into 6–8 pieces (must be kept cold until use)
1 teaspoon fresh tarragon, finely chopped (alternatively, 1/2 teaspoon dried)
1/4 teaspoon lemon juice
salad leaves, to serve
1. Soak 4 wooden skewers in water and set aside. Preheat the grill on medium (350°F/180°C).
2. Cook the rice using the absorption method, by heating a teaspoon of olive oil in a large saucepan on medium heat and adding the rice. Stir to coat. Add 2/3 cup of water to the pan, stir once and cover immediately with a glass lid. When the water starts to simmer, turn to the lowest heat and cook gently until all the water is absorbed (tip the pan slightly, and if any water comes to the edge, the rice is not quite ready). Set aside when ready.
3. While the rice is cooking, start the sauce by placing the shallots, wine and white pepper in a small, heavy-based pan. Bring to a gentle simmer at very low heat. Leave to simmer while proceeding to the next step, but keep a very close eye on the shallots. If the liquid reduces too quickly, remove from heat and set aside until you have completed the next step. Do not let the shallots burn, as this will leave a dark residue in the pan and your sauce will have an unpleasant color.
4. Cut the fish into 3-centimeter cubes and divide them evenly among the 4 skewers. Season with salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil. Grill the fish for 2–3 minutes on each side, then remove and cover with aluminium foil.
5. When the liquid in the sauce base is reduced to almost nothing, the shallots will become rather mushy. Turn the heat to the lowest point and, working quickly, add one piece of cold butter, whisking constantly until melted, but do not let the sauce boil! Add another piece of butter, whisking quickly, and continue in this fashion until all the butter is used. The sauce will become very creamy and thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Remove from the heat and stir in the tarragon and a couple of drops of lemon juice, seasoning to taste. It is recommended to serve this sauce immediately, but it can be kept warm in a bain-marie.
6. To serve, divide the rice, brochettes and salad leaves between two plates, then drizzle some of the sauce over the top of the fish, placing the rest in a sauceboat on the table.
Note: Monkfish fillets are often sold with a solid bone down the back that can be a bit tricky to get out, but any good fishmonger will be willing to remove it for you.
Markets in Paris
Marché de la Bastille
Marché Président Wilson
Find out more about Saint-Julien-de-Concelles, where beurre blanc was invented.
Editor’s note: If you are a foodie heading to Paris, why not download one of our three gourmet walking trips or our package of foodie walks for the iPhone?