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.

Butter Poached Lobster and Seared Salami over Gruyère Polenta

Last week, I felt like Bradbury’s Margot, weighed down by perpetual rain, locked away from a sun which surely had to be shining somewhere – as it hadn’t been seen in Boston in almost 10 days.  But this weekend … this weekend it is BEAUTIFUL (and I don’t use my capslock lightly); and today… today it was warm and sunny and breezy and the weather and warmth simply begged me to take a long, leisurely, athletic bike ride.  I’d been seeing, lately, all sorts of  buzz on one of our usual destinations — Boston’s Seaport — to which we used to ride to visit the Barking Crab, previously the only real fun lunch place and bar to be enjoyed down there.  But this winter, at least 4 new restaurants have opened overlooking the water — a Legal Seafoods, an upscale Mexican joint which offers roast suckling pig (which I *will* have, oh yes I will), a sports bar with every seat simultaneously facing the sea and huge TVs, and a fancy shmancy steakhouse — all on one pier.  But more on that later.  The last, best place Clayton and I discovered down there before the winter set in last October was the Yankee Lobster Company, a seafood counter (where the fish was good but where both soups floury and disappointing) and a fish market — where the prices are at least $1 less per pound/item then their more urban uptown neighbors, James Hook and Co. So after we indulged in our lunch, we rode over to Yankee’s unassuming and almost unwelcoming retail door, hidden somewhat behind their only slightly less unassuming restaurant facade (Clayton thought I was breaking in, misremembering our last visit), walked past the surprising swimming pool sized lobster pens, to order our 2# bug (@ $7.99/lb) and our two stuffed quahogs (@ $2.50/each) from the friendly but barely conversant and seemingly bewildered fisherman behind the floating counter, and to pay our money to the official looking, but congenial, man behind the glass door.  It’s all very DMV, but it’s worth the experience – given the fresh product and reduced price.

I realize this is a very lengthy introduction, and I’ve not yet even touched upon the plat du jour.  My apologies, dear reader — I am deep into Byatt again, and she is one of very the few writers who truly fertilizes my (perhaps misguided) literary loquaciousness.  (See what I mean?)  So to dinner: our Stan’s sweet inner meat was drowned in fennel scented butter, and served over a fluffy bed of baked polenta that had been stuffed with a nutty Comté and studded with a spicy seared salami.  This riff on my Boss Grits (see here, here, and here) is an incredibly simple, thoroughly elegant interpretation of one of our favorite meals.  It’s shrimp and grits, people — only much, much better.

Butter Poached Lobster and Seared Salami over Gruyère Polenta

1 2# fresh, kicking lobster
1 cup polenta
1 1/2 sticks butter
1/4 lb comte de forte gruyere cheese
1/4 lb rosette de lyon salami
fennel salt
minced garlic
sea salt and black pepper
2 stuffed quahogs (optional)
fresh snipped chives

There’s out little guy: I called him Stan.  He’s glaring at me from within his cold bag, knowing his number is up.  But we will love you, Stan — we will eat every bit of you with worship and thanks, because you are not only beautiful, you are delicious.

Stan goes into my deepest pot.  I don’t want to fully cook him yet, but I do need to loosen his meat from his shell, and I got some great advice about how to do that from a marvelous blog named French Laundry at Home.  Stan sits waiting while…

… I get enough water boiled with which to cover him (I’m using both my large saucepan and my kettle).

Right before I douse my lobster, I spill about a tablespoon of distilled white vinegar into the scalding water.  This is the same principle as adding vinegar to egg poaching water – it helps solidify all the foamy bits, and encourages the meat to shrink away from the shell.

Then, I pour all the hot, vinegar’d water over Stan, covering him completely.  He wiggles around a bit, I’m sorry to say, but I am merciless when it comes to my meals, and so I hold him under his jacuzzi bath, whispering soothing words about how with butter and spice I will treat him, and oh so how lovingly I eat will him.  He blanches for about 3 minutes.

See?  His hard outer shell is turning a nice deep red, but not the hot crimson it would if I were cooking him totally through.  I’ll be doing that when I poach his naughty bits later.

After my 3 minutes, I remove Stan from his bath, and break off his claws (using the point of my chef’s knife right at the flimsy joint where his arms meet his torso — to define him in human physiological terms — where’s a professor of organismic and evolutionary biology when you need one?) …

… and I set his body aside, re-submerging his arms for an additional 5 minutes or so (they require more cooking to separate from their shell).

Using my kitchen shears, I cut the semi-cooked tail meat out of Stan’s back-end, and rinse it quickly (in the hot water that is still cooking the claws) to remove the green tomalley.  After 5 minutes of steeping, I remove the claws from said water, and snip out their meat, too (including the knuckles.  Mmmmm, knuckles…)  I set Stan’s marvelous meat into a bowl, and set it into the fridge to hold until I need it later.

One of Central Square’s newest coolest corners is at Mass Ave and Albany Street – where the Paradise has always been, and where the new bakery Flour, and – more pertinent to tonight’s meal, – Central Bottle has recently opened.  Central Bottle is this great wine boutique and salumeria, with excellent charcuterie and cheeses.  As two key components in any Boss Grits is cheese and smoked meat, I stopped there to buy some tidbits that would more perfectly compliment the luscious lobster we carried in our bike panniers.

 I selected a lovely, nutty, firm comté le forte, which is a delightful Gruyère …

… and I also purchased a healthy hunk of Rosette de Lyon, a hard, French dry sausage sweaty with its own oils, flecked with pepper and paprika.

Using my sharp chef’s knife, I cut my sausage into a small 1/4″ dice.

I do the same with my cheese – cutting the dry edges off.  There’s enough meat and cheese for a wee bit of picking… and it is good.

Polenta is just grits’ older, more urban, more refined, more connected (read: congealed) cousin.  I start with 3 cups of salted water on boil, and one cup of polenta.

I dump my cup of corn into 3 cups boiling salted water, and whisk well to break up all the chunks.  It takes about 30 minutes for my polenta to cook to the right consistency over very low heat; I stir it constantly to keep it from clumping.

When it’s ready, I dump 1/2 my cheese cubes into my pan (now removed from the heat), and stir well.

A little sea salt, black pepper, and butter later, stirred in well…

I immediately pour this cheese studded golden goodness into two buttered ramekins, and let them cool on my counter…

… so that they can set – which takes about 15 minutes.  When the slight pressure of my fingertips pulls the pudding cleanly from the edge, it’s ready to bake.

During that time, I’ve lined a baking sheet with foil and have placed my stuffed quahogs on it into a 350 degree oven.  They need to cook for at least 20 – 25 minutes, and I want my polenta to bake for at least 15, so the stuffed clams need a 10 minute head start.

It’s also time to start my salami, which I’m searing over high heat with black pepper, for 8-10 minutes, or until nicely heated through.

Perhaps I missed a link somewhere in French Laundry at Home’s post, but I seemed to need to go elsewhere – namely, the always reliable Jaden Hair’s The Steamy Kitchen –  to find out exactly the process for “poaching in butter”.  I surmised it would be more than just butter, but was surprised that it was no more than simply a tablespoon of water added to butter which constituted the poaching liquid, and, ultimately, the final sauce.  I dump my wee bit of water into my small saucepan, which is just large enough to hold my lobster meat in a single layer.  I bring this to a simmer over medium heat.

I’ve taken a stick of butter out of the fridge at this last moment, and have sliced it into tablespoons.

Whisking constantly, I add my cold butter slices, one at a time, waiting ’til the previous tablespoon is fully incorporated, to my sizzling 120 drops of water.  Constant whisking over low heat will emulsify the water/butter blend, making a thick cream that will coat and soak up my lobster.

Clayton bought me this marvelous fennel salt some time ago, and I add about a teaspoon to my butter blend.  My Boss Grits usually calls for an ouzo cream sauce, but I don’t want to go that route entirely – so I add a smidgen of the anise flavor ouzo imparts by substituting my fennel salt instead.

I’ve but Stan’s tail into smallish bites, and have now layered all his lovely meat into my smooth, silky, butter emulsion.  My heat is set to medium low, and I stir this around periodically, over the next 8 minutes, to cook my lobster thoroughly through.  My meat turns opaque, and my sauce turns lobster pink.

 Right before service, I take my polenta ramekins out of the oven – where they have delightfully risen in the heat – and turn them out onto my large plates.  They are steaming hot, slightly softer in the center, and firmly set at the edges.

Puffy pillows of polenta are stacked with sweet lobster meat, salty peppery bits of French pork sausage, semi-melted tidbits of stringy, savory cheese, all swimming in a supple butter sauce, scented with fresh snipped chives and served alongside a steaming hot stuffed quahog.  Summertime means seafood in Lolita’s casa, and this light, sublime, spectacular supper is just the first sunshine meal of the season.  Oh hai, Sun God – bathe me in your glory, and set the world in fire with your warming summer rays.  I salute you with this offering of gastronomic delight!  Do you dig it?  ‘Cuz we sure did.