Brandied Cream of Mushroom Soup with Butter Poached Monkfish

Tonight’s dinner was mildly inspired by something Whole Foods did NOT have when I went for an early lunch the other day. It was barely 11:15am, and they were transitioning from breakfast to lunch on their hot bar; most of the soups were set up, but one tureen — the one labeled Cream of Mushroom Soup, which I really wanted — was empty.  Well, I wanted lunch RIGHT THEN, and darned if I was going to wait the 2 or 3 minutes it probably would have taken for the dude to bring out that soup, so I cobbled together some salad and whatnot to eat then, promising myself I’d make my own Cream of Mushroom soup for dinner.  Thinking, however, that I might need a bit more substance to my meal than just pureed fungus, I picked up a nice loin of monkfish with the vague idea that I could incorporate it somehow.  The result?  A perfect marriage of richly scented, umame laden mushroom cream and gently butter-poached and pan-seared monkfish, all topped off with cooling creme fraiche and bright cilantro oil.  The ideal dinner for an Indian summer’s evening after enjoying a riverside view of the regatta we Cambridge locals know as the Head of the Charles.

Brandied Cream of Mushroom Soup with Butter Poached Monkfish

2 lbs mixed mushrooms (these are white button, crimini, and portobello)
2 shallots
4-5 cloves garlic
1/4 cup olive oil
3 cups vegetable broth (I used bullion cubes reconstituted with water)
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup brandy
sea salt, cracked black pepper
2 sticks butter, cold and cut into cubes
1 tb water
3/4 lb monkfish loin

I start by washing my mushrooms thoroughly (there’s nothing worse than eating dirt grit), then chopping them roughly.

I sliced my shallots and chop my garlic.

In my big stockpot, I saute my aromatics with sea salt and cracked black pepper until just translucent.

In go my mushrooms, which I toss well to heat through.  They’ll begin to soften and melt, releasing their brown liquids into the pot.

I add my vegetable stock, lower the heat to medium, cover, and let simmer for about 30 minutes, or until the volume of my mushrooms had reduced enough for them to start drowning in the liquid in the pot.

Like so.

Using my hand blender, I whirr my soup until it is almost completely smooth, leaving some of it still chunky for texture.  If you have a blender, you can work in batches to do the same thing.

At this point I drop the temperature to low, and add my heavy cream.  I whisk this in well, then keep the soup warm until service, when I’ll add the brandy for a final 15 minute simmer.

Time for monkfish – a.k.a. the “poor man’s lobster”.  It’s an ugly fish, but if prepared correctly it truly does have a very lobster appeal.

As the sun outside sets, and I lose my light (this beam is actually reflecting off of a mirrored surface in the living room, shooting a narrow shaft of light on my kitchen counter), I cut the fish into 4 roughly equal cubes, using a couple toothpicks to pin the thinnest end piece into shape.  (I do this for both presentation purposes, and to make sure each piece of fish poaches at the same speed.)

I’ve butter poached a few times before on this blog (here and here), and the technique has been popping up on hoity-toity menus all over the place.  As fancy sounding as it is, it’s totally easy.  It starts with a little water and a lot of butter.

To make the beurre monté, which is what the poaching liquid is called by the hoi-polloi, start by bringing your little bit of water and a few cold cubes of butter to a simmer over medium heat, whisking constantly to emulsify the fat with the liquid.

Like so.  Keep adding a couple cubes at a time, whisking until the last batch is completely incorporated before adding more butter.

The trick to keeping this from breaking (read: clotting, or turning back into separated solids and liquids) is to maintain very low heat – no higher than 180 degrees.  Since I’m using too little liquid here to read on a thermometer, I just have to wing it – but basically my electric range’s lowest setting is about as high as I went.

When all my butter has been added to the pot, I gently place my salted and peppered pieces of fish into the liquid.  I let them cook for about 5 minutes on this side…

… before carefully turning them over so they can just cook through.  If you look at the picture above, you’ll see how there is still a wee bit of rareness in the very center of the piece of fish — I want this translucence to fade to opacity, which requires about 5 more minutes.

I almost forgot about my croutons.  Using a fresh baguette, I make some wee rounds of bread, which I brush with a bit of the poaching liquid (it is, after all, pretty much just butter) on each side before dusting with garlic powder and baking on 350 for about 4 minutes on each side, until just toasted.

I’ve also whipped up a quick cilantro oil.  It’s about 1/2 cup EVOO, 2 tbs lemon juice, some salt, pepper, the leaves from one bunch of cilantro and 1/2 bunch of parsley (about 1 cup packed to 1/2 cup packed, respectively). I whirr all this together with my blender and set it aside.  All this for just a drizzle?  Yes, please!

Finally, the last garnish is a wee bit of creme fraiche.  Sour cream might have worked, but I felt splurgy.

Right before plating, I pan sear my monkfish to caramelize it ever so slightly on top.  I’ve removed them from the poaching liquid, and then pressed them into a sizzling hot pan.  The butter absorbed and stuck to the flesh will sear each protein in about 2 minutes.

Finally, I add my brandy to my soup, raise the heat to medium so that it can boil off a bit, and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Hearty, warm, and satisfying, this thick and rich soup gladdens my soul.  The tender, juicy, buttery monkfish fall apart when touches by my spoon, and I try to enjoy a bit of fish, creme, and cilantro oil with every mouthful of mushroom puree I can.  The croutons are the perfect sopping vehicle, and a little of the foamy butter from the fish-searing pan adds a nice nutty element to all the deliciousness already in my bowl.  Although I stretched the cooking of this meal out over an afternoon, in reality it took only about an hour of active prep time, so I’m going to have to remember this for an average weeknight meal.  Because that, people, is how I roll.

Brown Butter Monkfish over Cauliflower Puree with Lemon Roasted Asparagus

There’s something wrong with me. Always has been. The plumbing’s all screwed up. So’s the brain, so when the anticipatory stress of another work week smacks into a too-rich meal on a Sunday night, I, um, pay for it. I LOVE LOVE LOVE filling the house with the smells of day-long roasting meats and veggies during a winter Sunday home, but it hate hate hates me, enough to make me call in sick on Mondays sometimes when I least can afford to do so, paying then for gastronomic indulgences from the night before. Perhaps this is TMI, but what the oyster-shuck? This blog is about what Lolita eats, and Lolita thinks it’s pertinent to explain why she’s eating what she eats. So now, Lolita eats light – but well – on Sundays. Here’s this week’s fare: some lovely fresh monkfish fillets, powdered and pan-seared in brown butter, served on a bed of creamy cauliflower puree and topped with stalks of roasted lemon-garlic asparagus. The cauliflower fills the place of mashed potatoes, only it’s cloudlike and ethereal, with a touch of vegetal sweetness, the poor-man’s lobster satisfies my desire for full, toothsome mouthfuls of fish-meat, and the ‘sparagus spears give the plate some savory, snappy green. This was an excellent dinner; one that had us both licking our plates!

What you’ll need, for two:

3/4lb monkfish fillets
1 head cauliflower
1 stick butter
1 cup heavy cream
1 lemon
flour (a scant ½ cup will do)
1lb asparagus
olive oil
sea salt
cracked black pepper
crushed red pepper (not pictured)
4 cloves garlic (not pictured)
black truffle oil (optional)

First, remove the wood from your asparagus spears by snapping the ends off as far down the stalks as they will naturally let you.

Throw them into a ziplock bag with about 1 cup of olive oil, some sea salt, and cracked black pepper.

Add as much crushed red pepper as you can handle. In my lily-livered case, that means about ¼ tsp.

Get yourself a few cloves of garlic.

And crush them with the flat of your chef’s knife. Then the skins will be easy enough to remove. Chop these roughly. Oh, and cut ½ a lemon into about 6 wedges.

Squeeze the lemons over the bag, then chuck the pulpy peels and chopped garlic in with the asparagus.

Squeezing as much air as possible out of the bag, seal it to marinade for about 20 minutes (or up to several hours).

When ready, spill the entire contents of the bag out onto a cookie sheet.

Spread the stalks out evenly.

And throw the pan into a 375° oven. It will take about 30 minutes to cook these through, which is the time you need for the rest of the meal.

Cauliflower. I don’t remember my mother making this much when I was a kid. But I LOVE it now.

I cut it into small florets, composting the tough stalk, and set them into some bamboo steamer baskets over my Ikeawok. It takes about 20 minutes for these to steam through to squishable softness.

Monkfish. A face made for radio. Really, this fish is so ugly, I’ve had trouble working with it, I admit. But I wanted to try something different for me, the price was right at Whole Foods, and I had an inkling of an idea (the result of which is this posting), so I decided to avert my eyes and deal with it for the sake of deliciousness. But even the spotty bits and the snake-meat like texture of the fillets sort of weird me out. Still – I conquered by repulsion, and boy am I happy I did.

Here’s a simple blend of flour, salt, and pepper.

I dredge each fillet (I have four here) with the flour mix thoroughly.

I set my large skillet over…

… high heat, add a few tablespoons of EVOO…

… and add my fish fillets. Shake the pan around, keeping the fish from sticking, and browning it evenly on each edge.

Meanwhile, my cauliflower is cooked to smoosh-stage, so I remove it from the steamer baskets and add it to a large saucepan. Mash with a potato masher, and add your heavy cream.

My fillets are about 1″ thick, so I rather have to brown them for 2-3 minutes on each rough edge. I flip them each about 4 times.

When each fish fillet’s surface is fully browned, stack them on the edge of your pan, and add two tablespoons butter, letting it melt and brown and scraping up all the brown floury bits stuck to the steel.

Then, tilt your pan so that your melted, browning butter gathers in a well, spread your fish back out across the pan, and use a spoon to ladle hot fat quickly and evenly across each piece.

See? The butter will froth, and you must slosh.

A pillowy base of cauliflower puree supporting two healthy slices of fresh, seared monkfish, topped with tangy roasted asparagus spears with lemon and garlic. This dinner is so fresh, light and delicious, that Bruce really doesn’t want any surrogate to enjoy it for him. Don’t worry, Mr. Willis; I’d cook for you anytime.