T is for turbot…
…as well as trout, and for me, at least, these two gastronomical delights will be forever one…
Do I mean turbot, what dictionaries call “a large flat fish esteemed as food,” or do I mean trout, leering up, twisted and blue, from its pan? My confusion, spiritual at least, springs from an experiment with pressure cookers, which starred sometime around 1820, near the little French village of Villecresnes, and ended in 1948 near the little American village of Beverly Hills.
One of the pleasantest stories, I think, in one of the pleasantest books ever written, Brillat-Savarin’s Physiology of Taste, is his anecdote called, very simply, “The Turbot.” In it he tells, with a ruminative smugness to which he was indeed entitled, how he saved the day as well as the menaced domestic bliss of two of his dearest friends.
They had invited a group of “pleasant people” to lunch at their country place at Villecresnes on Sunday, and when Brillat-Savarin arrived on Saturday night, as their privileged guest, he found them at polite swords’ points over what to do with a magnificent turbot which was, unfortunately, too enormous to fit into any cooking pan.
It would be another hundred years or so before the great Escoffier was to state sternly, “It is of the greatest importance…that the turbot not be cooked too long beforehand, since it tends to harden, crumple, and lose its flavor,” and the young French couple, happily unconscious of blundering, plainly planned to boil their catch whole, and then serve it the next day in its own jelly, with some such sauce as a mayonnaise, probably garnished with little tomatoes and cucumbers from their garden.
Madame stood up stoutly against the chopper which her exasperated husband was threatening to use as Brillat-Savarin appeared at seven that night, on horseback from Paris, and the tactful Professor insisted, in spite of feeling ravenously hungry, that the whole household help him immediately in coping with this domestic crisis. He sniffed through the establishment like an eager hound, until in the laundry, of all places, he found exactly what he needed: a copper wash boiler, which of course was solidly a part of its own little furnace. He marshaled the servants into a solemn procession, himself at the head bearing the turbot, the doubting cook and his skeptical friend in the rear, and proceeded to carry out his first dramatic assertion that the fish must, and indeed would, remain in one piece until its final appearance.
While the maids built up a fine fire and the cook assembled onions, shallots, and highly flavored herbs, he devised a kind of hammock from a large reed clothes hamper. He laid the fresh herbs thickly upon it, and then the cleaned and salted fish, and then a second layer of the herbs.
“Then the hammock was put across the boiler,” he wrote “which was half full of water, and the whole was covered with a small wash tub around which we banked dry sand, to keep the steam from escaping too easily. Soon the water was boiling madly; steam filled the inside of the tub, which was removed at the end of a half hour, and the hammock was taken out of the boiler with the turbot cooked to perfection, white as snow, and most agreeable to look at.”
The next day all of the guests exclaimed at its handsome appearance, and “…it was unanimously agreed that the fish prepared according to my system was incomparably better than if it had been cooked in the traditional turbot pan…[for] since it had not been passed through boiling water it had lost none of its basic qualities, and had, on the contrary, absorbed all the aroma of the seasoning.”
This is so obvious a result of his method that it surprises me to find some such master as Escoffier ignoring its principles and continuing, a century later, to advise his followers to boil turbot in the classical mixture of seven parts salted water to one of sweet milk.
The Professor himself hoped that his system would be followed and developed for the inexpensive and wholesome feeding of large numbers of people, as in armies and institutions, and I should think that hotel cookery as understood by Escoffier would fall somewhere into these categories. Perhaps it did not because pressure cookers, as such, were still too risky a utensil when the master chef died in 1834. Whatever the reasons, there can be no doubt that the boiled and/or poached fish generally served in even the best restaurants suffers from too much water and too little taste, too much Escoffier and not enough Professor.
The only real harnessing of steam to the pleasures of the table that I know about is done by the Chinese, and I can, in my mind, be at this very minute in the alley doorway of a Cantonese restaurant just off Plymouth Square in San Francisco, watching the exciting rhythm of the steam cookery there.