Sometimes, in the year and a half I've been writing this column, I totally lack inspiration. What am I going to make this week? That's what happened yesterday. So I asked my for-all-intents-and-purposes beau-père what dishes he loved most growing up in Normandy, and he said without hesitation his mother Bernadette's poisson with cream.
He told me that his mother mixed cream and ketchup and poured it over fish. Ketchup? "Ketchup?" I asked him.
"Don't you mean tomato paste?" I pressed.
"Yes, tomato paste!" I always remember from that seminal I Love Lucy episode with the escargots that the French hate ketchup, which is of course not entirely true, but I was still shocked that it might be mixed with cream to smother fish. Turns out, even kitchen condiments are lost in translation. Either way, I could tell that I wasn't going to get anything exact about this recipe from those closest to its source.
So, I set about making my own interpretation, which I think turned out quite successful. In Normandy, everything is about the cream and the butter, and this recipe proves that cream and fish make a good dinner. I lay skinless, boneless fillets of white fish in a hot baking dish, and pour over a mixture of garlic and crème fraîche. As it all bakes together, the garlic becomes fragrant and the cream bubbles up and turns golden around the edges. The juices from the fish as it cooks mingle with the cream, and create a thinner, flavorful sauce. I then top the bubbling dish with freshly shredded basil and just-burst grape tomatoes for a sweet-tart counter to the rich cream. Dinner is ready in less than 15 minutes, and it's light and decadent all at once.
Thanks, Bernadette, for the inspiration!
- 4 8-ounce boneless and skinless fillets of white fish, such as red snapper or hogfish
- Sea salt
- Freshly cracked black pepper
- 1 cup crème fraîche
- 2 to 3 cloves of garlic, finely grated on a Microplane
- 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, divided
- 2 1/2 cups grape tomatoes (about 40), cut in half
- Pinch of granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup chiffonade of fresh basil (from about 16 basil leaves)
Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat the oven to 425°F. Pat fish dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper. Combine garlic and crème fraîche together in small bowl.
Place a ceramic oven-safe baking dish on the center rack of the hot oven for 5 minutes. You can use either individual ceramic oval baking dishes (5 1/2 by 8 inches), or a large ceramic baking dish (9 by 13 inches). Add 2 tablespoons butter to hot dish (or between the four individual dishes), using wooden spoon to spread butter over bottom of baking dish. Place fish skin-side-down on the buttered baking dish. Cover with the crème fraîche. Bake until the fish is just cooked though (opaque and flaky), about 12 minutes.
Meanwhile, in an 8 1/2-inch sauté pan, melt the remaining butter over medium-low heat. Add the tomatoes with a pinch of sugar and a pinch of salt. Cover and cook until the tomatoes soften and burst, about 1 to 2 minutes.
Remove fish from oven, sprinkle with basil, and spoon tomatoes over the top. Serve immediately with warm, crusty bread.