I arrived in Paris just in time for New Year’s Eve and a blizzard of huge floppy snow flakes that cloaked the city in a dazzling white. My luggage however did not arrive but I had eleven people showing up for dinner so luggage be damned, I had to get cooking, regardless of the fact that the bag with *everything* in it was the one that took a detour in Chicago. For days I tossed and turned and fussed and fretted about what I was going to cook. Two in the group didn’t eat meat and one didn’t eat meat or fish. There went the delicious idea for a beef filet seared in pancetta then baked in puff pastry with sage and rosemary drizzled with a hollandaise sauce. So fish it was, with a vegetarian gratin for one.
At 6:30am on Saturday morning the 31st after not sleeping a wink, I placed a desperate S.O.S. call to the states and one Italian chef in particular, and asked how the heck I cook a whole fish. Now if you remember I spent the better part of last summer scaling, gutting, filleting, skinning and cooking fish and just generally being up to my elbows in fish guts but I never cooked a whole fish, never one all by myself in my little kitchen, and that thought, my friends, sent me into a veritable tail spin.
The perfectionist in me wanted dinner to be, well, perfect which is no easy task when 1. I’ve never made something before and 2. I lack an inordinate amount of self-confidence. That lethal combination is a Molotov cocktail of neurotic behavior that my friend Kristin, who helped me all day, could no doubt attest to.
So 6:30am, desperate call for recipe. 7:00am, come up with menu and shopping list. 10:00am, meet friends at cafe and shop at farmer’s marche (market), boulangerie (bakery), poisonnerie (fish store), and hypermarche (supermarket). 1:00pm, sleep. 4:30pm, wake up. 4:32pm, FREAK OUT. 4:35pm, start prepping food. 8:00pm, guests begin arriving. 9:45pm, dinner starts. 11:58pm, break for midnight countdown. 12:30am, extinguish fire (more on that later). 1:30am, dessert. 4:30am, last guests depart. 5:00am, sleep. 6:00pm Jan 1, wake up. A Happy New Year indeed!
The fairy godmother of inept cooks was looking out for me today…as was the fairy godmother of fire but more on that later. My first stop of the morning was at my favorite boulangerie, Boulangerie Pinaud, where they were conveniently selling foie gras. Jean-Marc (the pastry chef Pascal’s brother) was in an absolute tizzy, as he usually is when more than 3 people are in the store. I was sure their Foie Gras Fait Maison (home made foie gras) would be better than anything I could wrangle up so 10 slices to go please, 3 baguettes, and a brioche and I was in business. Jean-Marc sent us off with a bag of chocolate truffles and a bisous (kiss). He had calmed down by then.
A slice of foie gras on toasted brioche, with a spoon of fig jam (home made in the south of France by a wine expert friend), drizzling of fig reduction syrup, a brunoise (tiny dice) of mango, a sprinkling of fleur de sel, and a side of port-balsamic stewed onions.
Then off in search of a fish. The poisonnerie next to the boulangerie only had one 4 pound sea bass and there was no way it would fit in my oven. I could feel my blood pressure rising. What was I going to do?!?! I should have been born under the sign of Taurus because when I get an idea in my head, well fugetaboutit. I was going to find a whole fish if I had to go fishing in the Seine. Luckily the poisonnerie down the street at the Maubert Mutualite farmer’s market had two 3 pound bar (sea bass) that would be perfect! Things were looking up and my blood pressure was going down. Bought the carrots, check, potatoes, check, other produce, check, check. Bread, check. Fish, check. Foie gras, check. Cheese, check. Dessert, check. Whew! Now a few hours sleep and I might make it through the night.
For the main course I served the star of the evening, Monsieur et Madame Bar (sea bass) along with sliced carrots sauteed in butter and freshly grated ginger and chunky mashed potatoes mixed with a roasted head of garlic, a cup of creme fraiche, and a cup of cream heated with a pat or two (or three) of butter. Jenny Craig would have run screaming from the table. Fortunately she wasn’t invited.
I stuffed the two fish with 2 sliced fennel bulbs, 1 bunch of basil, a few sprigs of rosemary, 10 big cloves of chopped garlic, the white part of 1 leek thinly sliced, 1 lemon cut into 8 wedges, and a few cloves of garlic sliced. I rubbed the skin on both sides with olive oil, salt, pepper and garlic. They cooked for about 45-50 minutes at 400 degrees and I gave it a good basting it every 10 minutes with white wine (an Alsatian white), chicken broth, and lemon juice.
Monsieur Bar before…
…me and Kristin basting the fish with wine…and plating the foie gras…
and Monsieur et Madame Bar after…
A few minutes before midnight, we took a break from the table as a few wanted to see the fireworks over the Eiffel Tower. The closest unobstructed view is from the steps of the Pantheon, just a few blocks away so off they went and the rest of us, after cheering and shouting and bisous-ing at midnight, settled into the living room each grabbing a bottle of champagne on the way. With a roaring fire in the fireplace, 2006 was off to an auspicious start.
When the group returned we were anxious to hear all about the fireworks. Alas there were none, but not for long… I thought to myself ‘Is something is burning?’ So I got up and checked all the candles and looked around the living room and dining room. Nothing. I said to the group ‘Is it me or is something burning?’ Someone suggested it was perhaps the fireplace. I went to the kitchen to check the stove when I heard a huge commotion in the living room. Lucy came tearing into the kitchen, grabbed a pot and filled it with water. I ran to the living room in time to see smoke billowing and flames shooting from behind the couch! Kirstin grabbed the pitcher of water off the dining room table, ran for the couch, tripped and literally sailed through the air in slow motion akin to Barry Bonds diving for a fly ball in replay, pitcher of water straight up like the Statue of Liberty, landing on the couch, tossing the water over the back and dousing the flames. Diana grabbed the linen cover, rolled it up, and threw it out on the balcony.
Who needs the Eiffel Tower’s fireworks when you can make your own right in the comfort of your own home! The culprit turned out to be a linen cover used to protect the back of the couch from the sun that had fallen on top of one of the little halogen lights behind the couch. Once we recovered and were able to compose ourselves, we laughed for the next few hours thanks to Steve’s imitation of Kristin flying through the air a la Rocky the Flying Squirrel.
As soon as our stomachs stopped hurting, we meandered back to the table for the cheese course…
From the top, a soft creamy Chevre (goat cheese), Comte, Rocamadour, Beaufort d’Ete and a Marc de Tomme. Marc is what is left after the wine is pressed and this cheese was smothered in a layer of Marc from the Alps to impart some of the local flavor.
…and dessert! A passion fruit white chocolate cake, called Fraicheur, and made of creme legere a passion (passion fruit creme), parfait au chocolat blanc (white chocolate parfait) et biscuit cuillere aux grains de noisette (hazelnut biscuit, pronounced bis-qwee, or cake).
So on that sweet note, mes amis, Bonne Annee! May your 2006 be filled with health, happiness, good friends, good food and much laughter.
Cheers! And a very Happy New Year to you from my little kitchen in Paris!