Sometimes a matelote is a ragoût of beef cooked with red wine, mushrooms, and onions, but, generally speaking, the name is applied to a fish stew – a fisherman's dish. It may be made with one kind of fish, with eels for instance, but is more often taken as a method for cooking an assortment of fish, and particularly perhaps those generally considered to be lacking in flavour.
Correctly, freshwater fish are used for this dish, but in England, where these are not so readily obtainable as in France (although both carp and pike are now sometimes to be found in our shops), it is useful to adapt the method to a miscellaneous collection of sea fish. An adapted recipe is given.
Of fresh fish one may take eel, carp, pike, tench, or river bream, and in her recipe for sea fish Rosemary Hume has suggested hake, sole, plaice, mackerel, or bream.
The liquid for poaching is highly seasoned and flavoured and should preferably be a good wine, red, white, or a mixture of both. If only wine of less good quality is available, it is best to use only a small proportion of wine and to make up with fish stock or good consommé. When wine is used, the fish may with great advantage be flambéd with brandy.
Essentials of a good matelote may be summed up as follows: fish, freshly caught; good wine; plenty of good butter; and careful attention to cooking, for if the fish is broken up and an assortment of bones set free in the liquid, the result is unpleasant.
Sometimes the stew is accompanied by a dish of small fish no bigger than whitebait, dipped in batter and fried, which give contrast of texture. It should be remembered when cooking a mixture of fish that it is necessary to put the larger and more firm-fleshed fish in first, and to add the others later when a little cooking has taken place – to stagger the cooking in fact.
At the end of the cooking, the liquid is usually thickened with beurre manié, and the garnish made of fried croûtons, or mushrooms, or small glazed onions, cooked separately and finished with a little of the matelote sauce.
It will be seen that this is no part of a menu for a diner à deux, not even for a small family meal: it is a main dish for a hungry party; but while the recipes may look formidable at a casual glance, they do not, in fact, present any real difficulty, and are less troublesome than may at first appear.
900g mixed fish, eel, carp, pike, etc
2 large onions, sliced
750ml good red or white wine (burgundy or Bordeaux excellent) (the wine should be sufficient just to cover the fish)
A small clove of garlic, crushed with salt peelings from the mushrooms (see note)
Freshly grated black pepper
1 glass brandy
25g butter, 20g flour (beurre manié)
A few drops of vinegar
12 glazed onions (see note)
175g mushrooms cooked with a nut of butter and lemon juice
Slices of French bread
Cut the fish in thick slices keeping heads on, clean and dry. In a large sauté or shallow pan, make the butter hot, put in the onions and the pieces of eel and sauté 6-7 minutes, shaking the pan and turning the pieces about. Add the liquid, bouquet, garlic, mushroom peelings and a grating of pepper. Cook over strong heat for 7-8 minutes.
Flambé with the brandy (provided that wine only has been used as liquid).
Add the rest of the fish. Cook over moderate heat until the fish comes away easily from the bone. Take out all the fish with a fish slice and strain the liquid through a pointed strainer. Rinse out the pan, put back the liquid, and thicken it with the beurre manié. Adjust seasoning and add vinegar. The sauce should be fairly thin, only thickened just enough to coat the fish. Put the fish back in the sauce and simmer very gently for 10 minutes.
Toast the bread, lay it in a serving dish, arrange fish on top, removing the heads of the eels only. Surround with the glazed onions and mushrooms. (Crayfish cooked in court bouillon may also be used as a garnish.)
Mushrooms required for a dish in which they are to be sieved or chopped are not peeled, but rubbed with a dry cloth and a little salt, and the stems trimmed. The peelings and stalks of mushrooms should not be thrown away as there is a great deal of flavour in them, and they should be made into a preparation known as duxelles.
Wash the peelings and stems well. Squeeze tightly to dry, chop finely, put into a pan with a nut of butter, or some other suitable fat, and cook until dry, stirring frequently. Turn into a jar, press down and keep in a cool place until wanted for use.
225g small pickling onions or shallots
Salt and pepper
Peel onions and blanch 5-7 minutes; drain well. Put into the pan with the butter, sugar and seasoning. Cook gently with the lid on, shaking and stirring from time to time until the onions become tender and well glazed. Care must be taken that the cooking is slow or the sugar will burn.
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