Cook For Julia: Tarragon and French technique flavor Fish Stew with White Wine and Tarragon

by Terry B on August 8, 2012

Based on a Julia Child recipe, this delicately-flavored fish stew combines classic cooking methods and ingredients. Recipe below.

In celebration of the 100th anniversary of Julia Child’s birth, PBS.org is inviting bloggers to cook one of her recipes, post it and share the link on Facebook and Twitter with the hashtag #CookForJulia. Here is my contribution.

Each generation stands on the shoulders of the one before it. Our children use our experience and our knowledge as a foundation to see further than we can. To see things in a way that we can’t.

The same is true in cooking. In looking at some of Julia Child’s cookbooks, it’s easy to see them as a little old-fashioned, right down to the recipes. Chicken Marengo. Ham Steaks with Cream and Mushrooms. But home cooking is only where it is today because we stood on her shoulders.

As I said in my tribute to Julia a couple of weeks ago, we’ve cooked many things either from one of her cookbooks or in some way inspired by her cooking. Usually, we’ve relied on her seminal Mastering the Art of French Cooking. For this recipe, though, I turned to The Way to Cook.

First published in 1989, The Way to Cook isn’t just a collection of recipes—it does what the title promises, demonstrating a number of basic cooking techniques via master recipes. Julia then offers variations on the basic recipes and encourages readers to experiment with their own ideas. It’s not a French cookbook, but French technique is at the heart of the way Julia cooked, and it flows through the recipes here. And that’s fine with me. As much as Marion and I enjoy exploring the many cuisines in the world—both in restaurants and in our own kitchen—I am always struck by how the French unerringly choose just the right mix of ingredients and combine them with the perfect techniques to create not culinary fireworks, but something subtle, complex and sublime.

The book being 23 years old now, some of the recipes do feel a little dated. But some—like this one for a delicate, tarragon-seasoned fish stew—are timeless. As I began cooking it, sweating leeks, carrots, celery and onion in butter, the kitchen (and gradually, the entire apartment) filled with heavenly, French-accented aromas.

Regular readers here know that my recipes tend to fall into the quick and easy category. Real ingredients and real cooking, but dishes that more often than not, come together pretty quickly. And even those that require long cooking usually don’t call for much hands-on time in the kitchen.

This recipe is easy. No single step is in any way difficult or daunting. But there are lots of them, at least compared to my usual approach. From the time I started prepping vegetables until I ladled the finished stew into bowls, I was actively doing something. And as with just about all French cooking, every step, every ingredient is necessary. The very last ingredient in it is an egg yolk blended into sour cream. Even though I had already prepped it, I was skeptical that it was needed. The stew was smelling delicious already. But as I adjusted the seasonings as the recipe called for at this point—”Carefully taste and correct seasonings” is how Julia put it—it wasn’t quite right. The egg yolk and sour cream brought it all together. The sour cream gave it a tangy richness; the egg yolk added a silky texture to the sauce. Now it was ready.

A quick update: Blue Kitchen reader Jeri came across this delightful video celebrating Julia’s birthday. It was created for PBS Digital Studios by John D. Boswell, aka melodysheep. Turn up the sound and enjoy—and thank you, Jeri!

Fish Stew with White Wine and Tarragon
Serves 2 generously as dinner, 3 as a light lunch

Julia made this with sole and charmingly called it Sole Food Stew. I couldn’t get fresh sole and substituted halibut. Any firm-fleshed, mild white fish will work.

1 medium tomato
1 carrot, peeled and sliced
1 leek, white and pale green parts only, halved lengthwise and sliced
1 celery stalk, preferably with leaves, sliced (leaves chopped)
1 medium onion, sliced
1-1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 generous teaspoon chopped fresh tarragon leaves (or 1/2 teaspoon dried)
1-1/4 cup chardonnay, plus 1 tablespoon (or other dry white wine)
3/4 cup chicken broth (preferably unsalted—see Kitchen Notes)
1/2 cup water
salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 tablespoon cornstarch
1/2 pound halibut sliced into bite-sized pieces
1 egg yolk
1/2 cup sour cream (I used Breakstone reduced fat)

Blanch the tomato. Drop tomato into a medium pot of boiling water. After 10 seconds, remove with a strainer and set aside to cool. You need the tomato near the end of the recipe, so during a break in the action, core and peel it, scoop out the seeds using your fingers and gently squeeze out any liquid from the tomato. Then dice the tomato; you should have about 3/4 cup.

Melt butter in a large, heavy pot or Dutch oven over low to medium flame. Add carrot, leek, celery and onion and toss to coat with butter. Cover pot and sweat vegetables for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Do not allow to brown; reduce heat if necessary.

Add tarragon, 1-1/4 cup wine, broth and water. Season with salt and pepper and simmer uncovered for 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Combine cornstarch and remaining tablespoon of white wine in a small bowl, stirring until cornstarch is completely dissolved. Slowly drizzle 1/2 cup of heated broth/wine mixture into cornstarch and wine, stirring constantly to keep it from forming clumps. Blend back into pot and simmer over low heat for 2 minutes. Fold in fish and tomato and bring to a simmer. Taste and adjust seasonings.

Meanwhile, mix egg yolk and sour cream in a medium bowl. Slowly drizzle 1/2 cup of heated broth/wine mixture into it, stirring to combine. Gently fold into pot. Ladle stew into shallow soup plates and serve with a crusty bread.

Kitchen Notes

Choose your chicken broth. Store-bought broth options have been improving greatly. You can now pick from organic, free range, low fat, fat-free or several combinations thereof. But until recently, your sodium choices were full salt bomb or reduced sodium (which was still pretty salty). Now, though, unsalted broth is showing up on supermarkets shelves everywhere. This is the best option, giving you complete control of the amount of salt in dishes. Of course, if you make your own chicken stock, that’s even better.

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

kitchenriffs August 9, 2012 at 12:10 am

I haven’t tried any of the commercial unsalted broth – glad to hear it’s OK. I’ve never made this particular recipe of Julia’s, although I’ve looked at it enough. This is nice simple food with clear and distinct flavors – my fav. Thanks for the reminder that this is a great recipe.

jeri August 9, 2012 at 1:14 am

I miss Julia so much. She was always an idol of mine, as a person as well as a chef. Did you know that she took no salary for her wonderful PBS shows? I think she would be thrilled that people are celebrating her 100th. And for anyone who can’t find or grow tarragon (like me), you can saute some chopped fennel bulb with the other aromatics. It’s not as refined, but you still get that subtle licorice flavor. I know what I’m going to make this weekend and drink a Bon Appetit toast to Julia. Thank you.

Terry B August 9, 2012 at 1:27 am

Thanks, Kitchenriffs! Doing this post and exploring her cookbooks, I feel I really need to do more of that.

Jeri, I didn’t know that she worked without salary on the PBS shows. Very cool. Also, thanks for the tip on fennel. We recently had some fennel bulb prepared in an interesting way that I think we’ll try to explore here soon.

Mimi August 9, 2012 at 1:44 am

Why IS it so hard to find sole these days? I haven’t seen fresh or frozen sole in years. I thought maybe it was just our location, as I used to buy it in Madison in the 80s all the time.

Now that I’m “rewiring” I was thinking I might do a Julia recipe now and then…

Terry B August 9, 2012 at 3:09 am

Mimi, I can often find sole here in Chicago, just not on the particular Sunday afternoon I was looking for it. And while I do love it, it’s terribly fragile to cook. I hope you will cook some Julia now and again!

jeri August 9, 2012 at 4:31 am

Mimi, try looking for flounder or fluke. Or if you have an Asian market, they have lots of flat fish that go by other names. They’re all cousins and will do in a pinch. Oddly enough, delicate fish will firm up with really high heat like frying or broiling. Coddling it just makes it fall apart. There’s a bunch of Chemistry to explain it, but high school was a long time ago, so just trust me. Season your fish with whatever you feel like that day, dust with flour, and shallow fry in a really hot pan (I use cast iron). It’s light, but crispy, and still juicy.

Terry, I read about the PBS salary thing in that very well done, but technicallly unauthorized, bio of Julia (can’t remember the title, and leant it out, unreturned). But why make something like that up? And I’ve heard other people back it up. Agree, it’s way cool.

Mellen August 10, 2012 at 12:53 am

Terry/Marion,

Steve and I just finished licking our bowls of Julia’s fish stew and are in post-prandial heaven. France in the mouth, for sure! We couldn’t find halibut, so substituted cod, but my oh my, are we happy slurpers!

Terry B August 10, 2012 at 3:20 am

Thanks for the tips, Jeri!

Hi, Mellen! Glad you liked it. And cod sounds like a perfect substitute. Julia even suggested that you could substitute oysters or mussels.

Vegan August 10, 2012 at 5:08 am

The photo alone looks delicious and I’m sure it is more delicious to taste. Besides fish stew, what other flavors could I use for this recipe?

Terry B August 10, 2012 at 4:42 pm

Vegan, given your screen name, let me start by saying that this dish won’t lend itself to a vegan treatment. The butter at the beginning and sour cream and egg yolk at the end are integral parts of the overall flavor and mouthfeel of the sauce. You could perhaps go vegetarian, substituting sautéed tofu for the fish and either vegetable broth or more water for the chicken broth. For a non-vegetarian, non-pescatarian version, you might brown skin-on chicken thighs beforehand, move them to a platter and make the sauce in the pot, wiping it clean, but not washing it. Then you could return the chicken thighs to the pot later to cook through.

Kathy Steger August 14, 2012 at 1:49 pm

I agree with you this recipe is timeless. One of my favorite things is sweet aroma of the sweating veggies. It brings me back to childhood and comfort.

Terry B August 14, 2012 at 3:36 pm

That’s not a comment, Kathy. It’s poetry. Thank you.

David August 14, 2012 at 6:56 pm

This combination is outstanding! Even now I can remember the first time when I’m eating soup similar to this (my grandmother used to doing this kind of soup). It’s time to introduce it to my children as well :). Thanks for recipe Terry B!

Terry B August 16, 2012 at 12:56 am

Thanks, David! And based on Kathy’s comment above, make sure your children are in the kitchen when you start cooking. Those wonderful aromas will become memories for them too.

jeri August 16, 2012 at 1:40 am

Oh Terry, you have to see this. “Julie Re-mix” on YouTube. I’m trying to share it with as many people as possible. If you love it (and who wouldn’t) please pass it on. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=80ZrUI7RNfI&feature=youtu.be I’ve been replaying it all day. Enjoy; it’s priceless. “bring on the roasted potatoes.”

Terry B August 16, 2012 at 2:25 am

Thanks, Jeri! What a charming video. I’ve updated the post, including it. Now you can just come here when you want your Julia Child Remixed fix.

jeri August 16, 2012 at 2:52 am

Thanks! Sharing the love is always the very best thing.

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