The Food Inspector and the Chef: Salmon with sorrel sauce
In 1977 when Rick O'Reilly opened La Petite Maison in Olympia, WA, I had more restaurant experience but he had a far better and more sophisticated knowledge of food. While Jeffrey Basom opened my eyes to tofu, nori, seabass, and fresh ginger, Rick had extensive experience with French cooking, good wine, fresh oysters, Austrian pastry, and choucroute. For the time and the place, La Petite's menu was ambitious and complicated: table-made Caesar salad, house-made country pate, stuffed petrale sole, coq au vin, roasted oysters, and my favorite—salmon with sorrel sauce. Who had even heard of sorrel??
When Rick's uncle left him a sizable inheritance, Rick quit his job as a Washington State health inspector and started planning his new restaurant. It reminded me of the joke about keeping bees. "What does a millionaire do with all his money?? He keeps bees until the money runs out." Owning a restaurant is an act of love—few survive and even fewer turn a profit. The bee-keeping joke can be easily adapted to address the demands on a restaurateur: "What does a someone do with 24 hours a day?? He/she operates a restaurant until the hours run out." Working as a cook in a restaurant takes all you have to give. Owning a restaurant takes it all, then you have to balance the books, fill in for the absent dishwasher, placate the food inspector, wrangle your vendors, unplug the drains, fix the dishwasher, slide around the building codes, soothe the wait staff, and when there's time—re-price the menu.
Rick opened La Petite with his eyes wide open. He'd seen plenty of behind-the-dining room grit and grime when he inspected restaurant kitchens for the State. He knew the odds of succeeding and took the plunge anyway. He had been teaching cooking classes in France during summer vacations, attending classes from respected French chefs, and exploring the Loire Valley, Provence, and the French Mediterranean coast. He was a fine cook and an excellent teacher. His menu was small but exacting. We grew a small garden in the back for herbs, shallots, and sorrel. Sorrel is easier to grow in the Northwest than it is to find.
In a recent entry in Mark Bittman's blog, "Bitten", he rhapsodizes about salmon with sorrel sauce. The recipe originated with Pierre Troisgros, one of only three French chefs whose restaurants have received three stars in the Michelin Guide for more than thirty consecutive years. Bitten's recipe is just like Rick's and I choose to believe that Rick received it directly from Mr. Troisgros during one of his fondly remembered French cooking classes. Rick was an eccentric, witty, food-obsessed, generous friend and I think of him often.
Pierre Troisgros' Salmon with Sorrel Sauce
2 pounds salmon
1 tablespoon peanut oil, for pounding
2 cups Fish Stock
2 medium shallots, finely chopped
1/3 cup dry white wine, preferably Sancerre
3 tablespoons dry vermouth
1 1/4 cups creme fraiche
4 ounces sorrel leaves (about 1 quart tightly packed), washed, stemmed, and large leaves torn into two or three pieces
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
Freshly squeezed lemon juice
Coarse salt and freshly ground white pepper
1.Choose the thickest center section of the salmon. Using a flexible boning knife, cut apart the two fillets, and carefully remove skin.
2.With pliers, pull out the tiny bones hiding in the center of the flesh. They can be found by running fingers against the grain of the fish. Divide the fillets in half horizontally to make four pieces weighing about 6 ounces each.
3.Lightly oil two pieces of parchment paper with peanut oil. Lay one piece of parchment on a flat surface. Place fish on parchment. Top with second piece of parchment. With a wooden mallet or the side of a cleaver, gently flatten so each fillet is of equal thickness.
4.In a medium saucepan, combine fish stock and shallots. Bring to a boil, and cook until reduced to a glaze, 10 to 15 minutes. Add wine and vermouth, and continue to cook until bright and syrupy, about 3 minutes. Add creme fraiche, and boil until slightly thickened, about 2 minutes. Pass through a fine mesh sieve into a clean pan.
5.Add sorrel, and cook for 25 seconds. Remove from heat. Add butter a little at a time, swirling or stirring with a wooden spoon until completely incorporated (be sure not to break up sorrel leaves). Season with lemon juice, salt, and pepper.
6.Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Season salmon on one side (the less presentable side) with salt and pepper. Place in pan, seasoned side up. Cook 25 seconds, turn, and cook 15 seconds more. The salmon must be undercooked to preserve its tenderness (it will continue to cook in the finished sauce).
7.Distribute sauce among four large plates. Place salmon, seasoned side down, on plates. Season with salt. Serve immediately.