I find it hard to believe how December has quietly snuck up on us and brought with it a box of tissues and pot of honey-lemon tea to tide through the cold. Even with two heaters running, our tiny cottage can’t seem to warm up fast enough to keep my toes from turning blue, so my answer is to turn on the oven and set to work in the kitchen. If I’m not holed up in bed sniffling away that is.
With Christmas just three weeks away, I’ve been working on our Christmas gifts for this year, a surprise that I hope to unveil….erm, soon enough. For now though, I’m getting in the Christmas mood by cooking up an answer to a hypothetical question: “What would your ideal Christmas dinner look like?”
It’s hypothetical because (a) we’re spending it in France where my mother- and sisters-in-law will be hosting us, and (b) our space is too small to host a sit-down dinner (it is a cottage, after all), so for now, a real Christmas dinner chez nous will have to take place on Bon Vivant. Four courses in four weeks, featuring some of my favorite recipes and flavor combinations, with wine pairings courtesy of our resident French sommelier, M.
Not a bad compromise, right?
Kicking things off are two hors d’oeuvres to tease the palate and get the conversation flowing, along with endless pours of Champagne (or a sparkling white, to be politically correct). We had a Chandon Brut Classic that had just the right amount of acidity to cleanse the richness of the eggs and the cod brandade in between bites. I was tempted (as usual) to get a bottle of Möet, but since I wanted to cook and drink locally as much as possible, Californian wines were the way to go. I guess the Möet will have to wait till we’re in France!
Creamed Eggs with Salmon Roe (Adapted from the French Cookbook)
Makes 6 servings
Dressed up with orange orbs of salmon roe, these eggs are a cinch to prepare, coming together quickly in a bain-marie as long as you keep whisking continuously for all of 10 minutes. You’ll probably spend more time retrieving the eggs and cleaning the egg shells (if you choose to present them in their shells) than on cooking the eggs itself. If this doesn’t sound appealing to you, the eggs can be served as is, topped with the roe and fingers of bread on the side.
6 large whole eggs
2 large egg yolks
4 ounces/ 120 grams unsalted butter, cubed and at room temperature
6 to 7 ounces/ 180 to 200 grams salmon roe
Salt and white pepper
6 slices of white bread or brioche, toasted, crusts removed and sliced into 2-inch long fingers
Stand the eggs in their egg cups and carefully remove the tops of their shells with an egg topper. Place the eggs and egg yolks in a separate bowl, then, using your fingers, carefully remove the fine membrane lining the egg shells. Rinse the shells and leave them on a rack to dry.
Lightly season the egg yolks and eggs, then whisk briefly.
Prepare a water bath by placing a small but deep saucepan on a trivet in a larger frying pan, and fill the larger pan with very hot (not boiling) water until it comes halfway up the sides of the small pan. Turn on the heat such that the water is below simmering. You should see bubbles but they shouldn’t break the surface.
Grease the small pan with half the butter then add the eggs and start whisking until they come together in little lumps. Start adding a few cubes of butter in batches until they are all absorbed and the eggs come together in a buttery sauce. Season lightly with white pepper.
Scoop the eggs into the empty eggshells until they are two-thirds full, then top with a few teaspoons of salmon roe. Serve warm with bread fingers.
Salted Cod Brandade with Fried Sage (Adapted from the Bouchon Cookbook)
Makes 6 servings
My interest was piqued after watching Anthony Bourdain gush incessantly about this appetizer when he dined at Bouchon in Las Vegas. It was the first recipe I tried after receiving the cookbook and fell in love with it despite involving a fair amount of advance planning and preparation. Each ball of battered salted cod and potatoes makes for such a delicious snack, it has become my go-to appetizer when we have guests over for dinner. Keller suggests a serving size of 3 brandade balls per person, which may seem very little (especially after your first bite), but it’s the perfect tipping point of satiety, especially as part of a larger meal.
Although you can order as much salted cod as you’d like online (I bought mine at Whole Foods), it is perfectly easy to make your own. Buy the biggest cod filet you can find, bury it in salt in a container and leave it in the refrigerator. Keller advises that a 1-inch thick filet will cure in 4 days, while a ¾-inch thick piece will cure in 3, although I used to leave the cod for at least two weeks and up to a month. The cod is ready when it’s completely stiff and will need to be prepared before being used in cooking.
Preparing the cod:
8 ounces/ 220 grams salted cod
Two days before you plan to make the brandade, rinse the salt off the fish and dry with paper towels. Place it on a rack set over a tray and refrigerate uncovered for 24 hours to allow the moisture to evaporate.
After the first 24 hours, place the fish in a container with enough cold water to cover and leave it in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours. Change the water every 8 hours. The cod is ready to be used when it feels like fresh cod filet again.
1½ pounds/ 700 grams potatoes
5 large cloves garlic, roasted in their skins and chopped into a paste or 2 raw cloves, minced
A pinch of sweet paprika
1 cup olive oil
Preheat the oven to 350F/ 180C. About an hour before you start cooking, prick the potatoes all over with a fork, place them on a roasting tray and bake until tender.
Remove the cod from the water, rinse it and place it in a saucepan with enough milk to cover. When the potatoes are baked, start heating the milk and cod until just below a simmer and gently poach the fish for 3 to 5 minutes until tender and flaky. Remove from heat.
Halve the potatoes, scoop out the flesh and press it through your finest sieve, or the finest disk of a food mill. When ready, cover the potatoes with plastic wrap and keep warm.
Drain the poached cod and discard the milk. Place the cod in a food processor and pulse briefly, just enough to break it up. Add the garlic and paprika and pulse a few times. Add the olive oil in 3 batches, a ¼-cup each time, pulsing after each addition.
Transfer the processed cod to a large bowl and fold in half the warm potatoes. Taste as you add the rest of the potatoes, ensuring that you can still taste the cod.
Add a few more tablespoons of olive oil, just enough to provide a balance of cod, potato and olive oil, then season to taste with salt and white pepper.
Roll the brandade into 18 balls of about 2 tablespoons each and set aside.
1 cup all-purpose flour
6 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon baking powder
1½ teaspoons fine sea salt
About 1 cup beer or sparkling water
Mix all the dry ingredients together, then add the beer or sparkling water and mix to get a batter that is thick and slightly lumpy. Leave to sit for at least 10 minutes or up to 2 hours.
Cod brandade, rolled into balls
5 sage stalks, leaves picked
Oil for deep-frying
Heat at least 3 inches of oil to 350F/ 180C in a deep fryer or large saucepan.
Cooking the brandade in batches, add about 5 balls at a time to the batter, rolling them to cover all sides, then place in the oil, without crowding. Turn the balls to brown all sides evenly, which should take about 4 to 5 minutes per batch. Remove and drain on a rack set over a tray.
When all the brandade is cooked, add the sage leaves to the oil and cook until crisp, then drain on paper towels.
Place 3 brandade balls on each plate and serve with a sprinkling of sage leaves.