I was sad to learn that the great chef Roger Vergé died last week at age of 85. When I was a young cook in the late 70’s, he was one of a handful of chefs who changed the way I thought about food, pioneering the innovative style that became known as “nouvelle cuisine”. His restaurant Moulins de Mougins was a landmark in the south of France, renown for its inspired Provencal cooking.
When I interviewed him at his restaurant during a stay in Provence, he used words like ‘hunger’, ‘generosity’ and ‘pleasure‘ to describe his philosophy of food. Like other great Provencal cooks in the region, Verge cooked with the bounty of the local markets – seafood, herbs, vegetables, olives, “to satisfy hunger in its deepest sense – for communion, comfort, celebration“.
To Verge, how one eats reflected how one lives. His philosophy was simple: he ate what he felt he needed to eat, in a balanced way, to feed his hunger, both emotional and physical. “Sometimes if I need a whisky, I drink a whisky, not the whole bottle. You have to eat and live and cook following what you like, not what others tell you”.
He taught me a singularly simple and delicious sauce for grilled or roasted fish that I have relied on over the many years since, below. He served it with a fish scented with bay leaves. It is equally good with the fennel-scented fish, below, that can be roasted or grilled.
Recipe: Citrus and Olive Oil Sauce
You can make the sauce up to 2 hours ahead
Makes 1 1/2 cups; Serves 4
3 navel oranges or 4 blood oranges
1 large or 2 small lemons
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste
Freshly ground white pepper
3 or 4 tablespoons fruity extra-virgin olive oil
With a thin sharp knife, cut the tops and bottomscrosswise off the oranges and lemons to expose the flesh. Stand an orange on the work surface, and, working from top to bottom, carefully cut off the peel and white pith in wide strips, leaving the orange flesh intact. Then, holding the orange over a bowl to catch the juice, cut between the membranes to release the orange sections. Drop the sections into the bowl of juice. Squeeze the membranes to extract the juice and discard membrane. Repeat with the remaining oranges and lemons.
Season the juice lightly with salt and white pepper. Add the olive oil and toss gently. Set aside until ready to serve.
Recipe: Fennel Roasted or Grilled Fish
In the South of France, whole meaty white fleshed fish like loup de mer (bass) and daurade royal (bream) are often grilled over dried stalks of wild fennel whose sweet smoke subtly perfumes the flesh. This recipes achieves that Provencal flavor with cultivated fennel. The fish is first rubbed with a fennel seed-infused-olive oil mixed with Pernod, the anise-flavored aperitif from the South of France, which intensifies the fennel flavor. It is then grilled or roasted over fennel stalks and fronds; their smoldering smoke flavors its flesh.
Using a hinged fish rack to sandwich the fish and fennel branches between racks makes it easier to turn without breaking the flesh.
Fennel Seed Oil
1 1/2 tablespoons fennel seeds
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
2 teaspoons Pernod, or other anise-flavored aperitif
2 fennel bulbs with at least 5 inches of stalk and feathery fronds
One 3 to 4-pound fish or two 1 1/2 pound fish, such as red snapper, striped bass or sea bass, cleaned OR
four 6 to 8 ounce bass or sea bass fillets, with skin
2 1/2 teaspoons salt
Scant 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
6 to 8 thin lemon slices
1 teaspoon olive or grape seed oil (only if cooking fillets)
To make the fennel seed oil, in a mortar or a spice grinder, coarsely grind the fennel seeds. Add them to a small skillet along with the olive oil and garlic, cover, and cook over low heat until the garlic is soft, the oil is fragrant (little bubbles will begin to dance around the fennel seeds), about 8 minutes. Add the Pernod and set aside to cool.
Cut the stalks off the fennel bulbs; save the bulbs for another use. Snip off the feathery fronds and coarsely chop them. You will need about 1 cup fronds. Cut the stalks lengthwise into quarters about 5 inches long. Reserve.
If preparing whole fish: Rinse the fish inside and out with cold water, pat dry and lay on a platter. With a thin sharp knife, make three 1/4-inch-deep slashes across the flesh on each side. Rub the fish with the fennel oil, pushing seeds into the slashes. Sprinkle salt and cayenne in the cavity and over the skin of the fish, then drizzle the lemon juice into the cavity and over the fish. Stuff the cavity with all but 1/4 cup of the reserved fennel fronds and a few lemon slices. Place about 2 tablespoons more of the fronds on the sides of each fish, pushing them into the slits.
If preparing fillets or steaks: With a thin a thin, sharp knife, score the skin to keep it from curling by making several shallow parallel slashes in the skin about 1 inch apart. Turn the fillets 90 degrees and make several more slashes to form a crisscross pattern. Then rub the fennel oil and lemon juice over the fillets, and sprinkle with 1 teaspoon of the salt and the cayenne. Press the fennel fronds into both sides of each.
Cover and refrigerate the fish for at least 30 minutes and up to 4 hours.
Preheat the oven to 500′.
To roast whole fish: Make a “bed” of the fennel stalks on a baking sheet or shallow casserole. Place the fish on top of it. Roast the fish on the middle rack of the oven, figuring on slightly less than 10 minutes per inch of thickness (a 1 1/2 pound fish will take about 14 minutes, a 3 1/2 pound fish about 27 minutes). To test for doneness slide a sharp paring knife into the flesh along the spine and gently lift. The flesh should still be ever so slightly translucent near the bone but just pull away from it. (Fish that “flakes”, the old test for doneness, is really overdone).
To fillet the fish: Using a cake server or a thin pointed spatula, cut through the skin along the back spine of the fish. Gently slide the spatula between the spine and the top fillet; lift up the fillet and transfer to a patter or dinner plate. Slide the spatula under the spine and lift it off the bottom fillet; discard. Gently transfer the bottom fillet to a platter. Divide as desired.
To roast fillets: Place a heavy oven proof skillet or baking pan (large enough to hold the fillets in one layer without touching) in the oven to heat 5 minutes. Pour the oil into the pan and swirl to coat completely. Add the fish skin side down and roast for 5 to 6 minutes until the skin is nicely browned. Carefully turn the fish over and roast 4 to 5 minutes longer. To tell if the fish is done, push a two-pronged kitchen fork straight down into the flesh. If you feel no resistance the fish is cooked. If you feel as though the fork is pushing through a membrane, return the fish to the oven for another minute or two.
Fennel-Grilled Fish: Prepare a solid bed of coals in the grill and light them. They are ready when there is a layer of white ash on the glowing embers. Open a hinged fish rack and place a layer of fennel branches on one side. Place the fish on top, and arrange more fennel branches over it. Then close and secure the rack. Place the fish over the coals. Turn every 5 minutes, brushing the top with the remaining marinade. Smaller fish and fillets will take about 12 to 15 minutes, large ones 25 to 30 minutes.
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