Zesty beurre blanc sauce for fish worth the extra steps

  • Tue Sep 4th, 2012 10:06am
  • Life

By Jan Roberts-Dominguez

Standing in the condiments aisle in Market of Choice, a friend I hadn’t seen in months appeared from the direction of the fish counter.

“Wow, talk about good timing,” Deb said. “We just bought a piece of swordfish. Any thoughts on how we should handle it?”

Thoughts? Boy, howdy. And although the words that tumbled from my brain sounded fairly labor-intense, I took a breath then distilled it down to one word: “Buerre blanc.”

OK, two words. But one sauce. A sauce that is both buttery and zesty. A sauce that will support the fish without overwhelming it. A sauce that will dance on the palate so delightfully and with such grace that your lucky dinner mates will just sigh their approval.

The problem with such a sauce is that it is created in two steps. Which in my book, isn’t such a big deal. But these days, with so many conveniences on the market to ease your time and efforts over the stove, some would consider that the savory equivalent of making layer cake from scratch.

But the fact is, you’ll be uniting your sauce with a very simple fish preparation — one that’s been achieved over the coals or gas grill. So the overall impact on your psyche is minimal.

I’ve talked about this style of sauce before. But there’s a good chance you weren’t paying attention. And besides, with albacore season upon is, it’s the perfect time to be reminded of some jazzy variations to try on that grilled loin or steaks you’ll be serving over the next few weeks.

A classic beurre blanc is made by taking a large amount of white wine and/or vinegar, and simmering it down to a much lesser amount, along with a handful of chopped shallots, and maybe a pinch of fresh herbs. Which is called a reduction, by the way.

So, that’s step one. At this point, a large amount of butter is whisked, one dollop at a time, into the simmering reduction. Boom, step two is now behind you and all that’s left is a fine-tuning of flavors with the addition of salt and pepper.

Of course, that’s merely a basic beurre blanc. French in origin. But you’ll encounter this same sauce in many guises if you hang out in restaurants where good sauces are respected.

One such place is Aqua, in downtown Corvallis. My beurre blanc education was expanded after a chat with owner/chef Iain Duncan a few years back.

I had asked him how home cooks could inject the same sort of Pacific Rim/Hawaiian regional influences into their nightly menus that he brings to Aqua.

One approach, he advised, would be to incorporate a few Asian/Hawaiian elements into said beurre blanc. Shredded bits of fresh ginger, a drop of sesame oil and a splash of soy sauce, for example.

I have discovered this to be an exciting way to achieve Asian-influenced flavors in elegant style when working with my go-to summer fish, albacore.

And even though the sauces that I’m going to share with you are certainly rich, the idea is to use them sparingly, as an accent to the grilled albacore (or halibut, or swordfish, or salmon…)

If you add a third element, such as the Tomato Ginger Relish I’m also providing, or a simple cucumber salad tossed with vinegar, chopped green onion and coarsely ground black pepper, then you lighten the dish even further.

I’m providing this classic — and basic — preparation so that you can do as I have done, which is to experiment and develop your own spin-offs.

As the author, James Peterson, explains in his wonderful book on sauces (“Sauces, Classical and Contemporary Sauce Making:): “Until the late 1960s, beurre blanc was little known outside of Brittany, the Loire valley, and a few specialized Parisian restaurants. Because it contains no emulsifier other than butter itself, it was considered extremely difficult to make.

“In fact, there was a certain amount of mystique surrounding its preparation, usually concerning magic wrists or the need for a half century’s experience.

“Gradually, a few of the more adventurous Parisian chefs discovered that the sauce was not so difficult to make after all, and beurre blanc, along with an array of obvious derivatives, took Paris by storm.

“The recipe that follows contains a small amount of heavy cream, which although not essential, will help start the emulsion (and stabilize it). The essential key is not to stop whisking and not let the sauce come to a full boil. Seasoning can be added at the end.”

Classic beurre blanc

4medium shallots, peeled and finely chopped

1/2cup dry white wine

1/2cup white wine vinegar

4tablespoons heavy cream

1pound butter

Salt and pepper to taste

Combine the finely chopped shallots with the white wine and vinegar in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Gently simmer the mixture until practically all the liquid has evaporated (reduce by about 90 percent).

Add the heavy cream and gently heat it almost to a simmer.

Cut the butter into 1-inch cubes, and add them to the shallot-cream infusion. Whisk the sauce over high heat (but don’t let the liquid boil) until all the butter has been incorporated.

Adjust the seasoning, adding salt and pepper to taste. If the sauce seems flat, add wine vinegar, a few drops at a time. If the sauce tastes harsh or overly acidic, whisk in more butter.

Holding beurre blanc: If held properly, beurre blanc prepared just before a lengthy meal will stay intact for several hours; leave it in the saucepan, covered, in a warm area, such as a warm oven, plate warmer, or on the back of the stove over very low heat. If necessary, the saucepan can be placed in a pan of very hot (but not boiling) water. If it is held for any length of time, it will begin to thicken and must be thinned periodically with heavy cream, water, or other appropriate liquid. If it isn’t thinned and stirred every thirty minutes or so, it is likely to break.

JAN AGAIN: OK, so with this basic preparation, there are countless ways to change its style prior to whisking in the butter. As I have done in the previous two recipes, consider adding splashes of ponzu sauce or soy sauce, chili-garlic paste, chopped garlic, various herbs … it’s an endless list of possibilities. Just have fun and enjoy!

Adapted from “Sauces, Classical and Contemporary Sauce Making,” by James Peterson.

This sauce is a spin-off from a classic beurre blanc.

Hot mustard-butter sauce

2tablepoons prepared Chinese mustard (I use Beaver brand “extra hot”)

2tablespoons ponzu sauce (I use Kikkoman brand; or regular soy sauce)

1/2cup dry white wine (such as Chardonnay, pinot blanc, or pinot gris)

1tablespoon rice vinegar or white wine vinegar

1 1/2tablespoons minced shallot

Pinch of ground white pepper

3tablespoons whipping cream

1/2cup chilled unsalted butter, cut into 32 pieces (cut the cube lengthwise into quarters, then cut cross-wise to produce 32 chunks)

In a small bowl, whisk together the mustard and the ponzu sauce; set aside (you’ll be adding it to the butter sauce at the very end of cooking).

In a small pot, combine the wine, vinegar, shallots, and white pepper. Bring to a boil and simmer until it is reduced to about 4 tablespoons (this will only take about 5 or 6 minutes). Whisk in the cream and boil just until it begins to thicken and reduce slightly, about 1 minute.

MAKE-AHEAD TIP: The sauce can be prepared to this point and refrigerated for several days. In fact, I like to make several batches worth and store it in a jar so I can make this sauce in a very short amount of time, with a lot less fuss.

When ready to finish the sauce, bring the reduction to a boil. Turn the burner to low, then whisk in the chilled pieces of butter one or two at a time. Keep whisking steadily until all of the butter has been incorporated. Whisk in about half of the reserved mustard-ponzu mixture, then taste and add more of the mustard mixture as desired. If you aren’t serving the sauce immediately, keep it warm over very low heat (or in the top of a double boiler set over hot water) or the sauce will begin to separate as it cools.

To serve: Spoon a portion of the sauce onto the center of each person’s dinner plate then add a serving of the cooked fish. Serve immediately, with additional sauce passed around at the table.

Makes about 1 1/3 cups of sauce, enough for 2 to 3 pounds of grilled Pacific albacore (or other firm-fleshed fish, such as halibut, sturgeon, or swordfish.

Spicy black bean-garlic butter sauce

1tablespoon olive oil

1teaspoon toasted sesame oil

1tablespoon finely minced yellow onion

1teaspoon peeled finely shredded fresh ginger

2teaspoons chili garlic sauce (look for it in the Asian food section of your supermarket)

1teaspoon ponzu sauce (I use Kikkoman brand, or regular soy sauce)

1teaspoon black bean garlic sauce (look for it in the Asian food section of your supermarket)

3/4cup dry white wine

1tablespoon whipping cream

1/2cup chilled unsalted butter, cut into 32 pieces (cut the cube lengthwise into quarters, then cut cross-wise to produce 32 chunks)

Heat the olive oil with the sesame oil in a heavy-bottomed, medium-sized skillet over medium high heat. Add the onion and ginger and saute for 1 minute. Stir in the chili-garlic sauce, ponzu sauce, black bean garlic sauce, and the wine. Simmer until the liquid is reduced by half, which will take about 5 minutes. Whisk in the whipping cream and bring to a boil. Remove from heat.

MAKE-AHEAD TIP: The sauce can be prepared to this point and refrigerated for several days. In fact, I like to make several batches worth and store it in a jar so I can make this sauce in a very short amount of time, with a lot less fuss.

When ready to serve, complete the sauce: First, bring the mixture to a simmer over medium-high heat. Turn the heat to low, then gradually whisk in the chilled pieces of butter, one or two at a time. Keep whisking steadily until all of the butter has been incorporated. If you aren’t serving the sauce immediately, keep it warm over very low heat (or in the top of a double boiler set over hot water) or the sauce will begin to separate as it cools.

To serve: Spoon a portion of the sauce onto the center of each person’s dinner plate then add a serving of the cooked fish. Serve immediately, with additional sauce passed around at the table.

Makes about 1 cup.

Team this fresh tomato-rich salad with the mustard-butter dauce or the spicy black bean-garlic sauce for a dynamic approach to grilled albacore.

Tomato-ginger-hazelnut salad

2cups diced tomato

1/3cup green onion

1/3cup minced Walla Walla Sweet Onion (or other sweet onion)

1/4cup chopped roasted and skinned hazelnuts

2tablespoons peeled, minced fresh ginger root

2tablespoons mirin (sweet rice wine)

1 1/2tablespoons black sesame seeds

1 1/2tablespoons toasted white sesame seeds

1 1/2teaspoons coarsely ground black peppercorns

1teaspoon salt

Combine the tomatoes, green onion, sweet onion, hazelnuts, fresh ginger, mirin, sesame seeds, ground peppercorns, and salt. This can be prepared up to 6 hours ahead (but don’t add the hazelnuts until just before serving); cover and refrigerate.

Makes 6 to 8 servings, enough for 2 to 3 pounds of albacore.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis, Ore., food writer, artist, and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.

Albacore is here

Like I said, one of my favorite fishes to serve alongside one of my beurre blanc-style sauces is fresh, local, line-caught albacore.

Every summer, as schools of albacore are migrating from the coastal waters off Northern California toward British Columbia, local fishing fleets seize the opportunity to bring fresh catches of it ashore.

Cooking albacore over the grill is really straightforward. First, be sure you’re working with outstanding fish. It’s gotta be fresh!

Since albacore has a tendency to dry out quickly, all albacore cooks agree it should be cooked just until it becomes firm to the touch. Some like to leave the center pink, while others take it just slightly beyond that. It helps to know a little about the different cuts.

Grilling moves

Some of my best summer grills have been centered around fresh, local, line-caught Pacific albacore. I employ one of basic basic maneuvers:

1. Prepare a foil pan that is roomy enough to form a base for the fish with enough foil remaining to loosely drape over the top. Add a splash of wine, lemon and herbs, then place on the pre-heated grill and cook just until the fish is firm when gently nudged.

2. Give the albacore a brief stint in either an herbed or teriyaki-style marinade (a couple hours at the most), then when ready to cook, prepare a foil pan that is roomy enough to form a base for the fish.

Glug in a tablespoon or so of olive oil, then add the drained fish and place this pan on the grill, over the pre-heated coals and cook just until the fish is firm when gently nudged.

In either of those approaches, one of my beurre blanc style sauces will bring depth of flavor and sophisticated intrigue to the party.

To serve

While the fish is cooking, perform the final phase on the sauce, as directed below. By this, I mean that you will have completed step one (the reduction) at an earlier point.

Then, just before serving, simply bring the sauce to a simmer and whisk in the bits of butter to complete it.