Happy 2010 everyone! It still sounds a bit science fiction to me. Where's my jetpack?
Every year between Christmas and New Years I do such a quantity of shopping and cooking - that come January 2nd, I feel like I could sip nothing but flat ginger ale through a plastic straw till March. Every year I try to outdo myself - but it’s often the last minute experiments that become the year-round keepers.
Thanks to my mother-in-law’s rather elevated taste in beverages, in the aftermath of the holidays I am always left with 2 or 3 half empty bottles of champagne. I keep it around (re-corked) and use it in place of white wine in my recipes. Whenever I do, something simple and extraordinary happens. I become a better cook.
I get it – very few people outside of France have leftover champagne hanging out next to the Diet Coke in the fridge. (Come to think of it, I’ve never seen my mother-in-law drink a Diet Coke). So think of the following recipes as a good excuse to buy some. Next time you have something to celebrate, open the bottle before dinner, pour a glass for the cook (essential, I think), use a splash in the recipes, stick a cork back in and drink the rest with dinner.
I used the end of one bottle to cook the fish we had on Christmas Eve. My mother in law suggested that I wrap the sea bass in parma ham, the meaty flesh of the fish stands up well to pork – I’ve done the same with andouillette sausage, but the ham was even better – it crisped up in the oven, clinging to the bass like a second skin. I stuffed the fish with parsley and added a handful of green olives flecked with herbs de provence. The champagne was an afterthought, poured in the bottom of the dish to keep the fish from drying out in the oven – but as the ham rendered its fat and the olives crinkled in the heat, the champagne became the base for a wonderfully complex sauce – no bite, just a bit of sparkle.On Christmas Day, I used the end of bottle number two to add a bit of acid to a creamy root vegetable soup. The champagne had just enough dry wit to balance out the mellow sweetness of the parsnips and butternut squash.
So just when you thought the season for special occasion eating was over – here’s a mini-menu to keep in mind. Valentine’s Day anyone?
Parsnip, Carrot and Butternut Squash Soup with Champagne
It is terribly important to use good quality veggies for this soup. My mom tried it with watery supermarket carrots and white wine and found it “blah”. If you can, try to find “dirty” carrots – those that have been harvested and buried in sand.
1 pound carrots (preferably “dirty” or organic (3 large), very thinly sliced
1 pound parsnips (2 medium), very thinly sliced
1 ½ pounds of butternut squash (about half a large squash), diced
1 onion, diced
5 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp butter
½ cup (plus a splash) champagne
4 cups chicken broth
1 ½ cups milk
Prepare the vegetables. Heat the oil and butter in a large stock pot. Add onion, sauté for 4-5 minutes until beginning to color. Add carrots, parsnips and squash; stir to coat with oil/butter. Cover with the lid ajar about an inch, and cook for 25-30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the veggies are sweet and tender.
Add the champagne – it will sizzle off pretty quickly. Then add the chicken broth. Using a hand blender, puree the soup. Add the milk and blend a second time for good measure. I add an extra splash of champagne at the end for kicks. Serve piping hot with crusty bread and oozy cheese.
Serves 6 as a light meal, freezes beautifully
Sea Bass with Parma Ham, Green Olives and Champagne
For Christmas I made this with 3 large bass for 6 people (that’s smallish French portions as part of a multi-course meal. If I was making it again, I think I might use smaller individual bass, just because they look so spectacular served whole. It is important that you ask your fish monger to scrape the scales off the fish – or do it yourself with a regular dinner knife (scrape against the grain) – you want to be able to eat the crispy parma-wrapped skin.
3 large bass, gutted with the scales scraped
Coarse sea salt
Handful of flat leaf parsley
8 slices of parma ham, sliced paper thin
Good handful of green olives with herbs
Splash of champagne
Heat the oven to 410° F.
Rinse the fish thoroughly, removing any stray scales with your fingers. Place the fish in a shallow casserole dish. Sprinkle the inside of each fish with sea salt, and stuff with a few springs of parsley. Wrap each fish with a 2 slices of ham, leaving the head exposed. Scatter the green olives on top. Pour a good splash of champagne in the bottom (about a ¼ inch), bake for 30 minutes until the skin is crispy and the flesh is firm and opaque down to the bone.