"The James Beard Cookbook," authored by the American chef and food authority James Beard, was published in 1959. It was revised and republished in 1970, and I am lucky enough to own one of the 1970 editions. James Beard brought French cooking to 1950's America. His legacy lives on in his numerous writings and cookbooks, and in the James Beard Foundation and its annual Beard awards given to various culinary genres.
It's nice to have one of his cookbooks as a reference, and I often peruse the recipes. One which captured my attention was fish in béchamel sauce, which I finally got around to making. I thought it would be a nice idea to include mushrooms and crab meat in the sauce. I was thrilled with my ingenuity. Then I checked Beard's recipe once more, just a few minutes before I sat down to write this post. There is a "variations" section below his recipe, in which Beard clearly states that both mushrooms and shell fish can be added to the béchamel. So much for my ingenuity. I am sure I had read that part, and then conveniently forgotten about it, until the time came when I believed it was my own invention. Memory does play tricks on us sometimes.
So anyway, since I love both béchamel and halibut, I combined the two and made an excellent entree. Something green needed to be served on the side, if only to make the pictures look good, something like steamed broccoli, or haricots verts, or asparagus.... I was too rushed to prepare anything like that and wound up serving my entree with just a nice tomato salad. Well, Beard never mentioned anything specific about vegetables concerning this recipe. Fresh vegetables are kind of a newfangled idea. They did not really appear on the American culinary scene until the late '70s or early '80's. What self respecting American ate vegetables in the 1950s?
For the Béchamel sauce:
- 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1/4 cup flour
- 1 and 3/4 cups whole milk, warmed
- 1/4 cup grated Parmesan
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- 1/2 cup sliced mushrooms
- 1/2 shallot, finely chopped
- a dash of thyme
- 1/2 cup nice crab meat, or you can even use shrimp
For the Halibut:
- 1 bottle of fruity white wine
- a few sprigs of parsley
- a slice of lemon
- a pinch of tarragon
- 4 halibut fillets, about 1-inch thick
- salt and pepper to taste
- 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
- a few dashes of paprika (optional, I use to sprinkle on top of the sauce just to make it look cute)
In some vegetable oil saute the shallots until they are soft, then add the mushrooms, some salt and pepper to taste and the thyme. Cook until the mushrooms are soft and begin to give off their liquid. Set aside.
In a 2-quart saucepan melt the butter over medium heat. Add the flour and whisk until smooth, but not browned. Gradually add the warm milk, whisking constantly to prevent lumps. Simmer over medium heat, whisking constantly, until the sauce is thick and smooth, about 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the Parmesan cheese, the Dijon mustard and some pepper to taste. Add the crab meat and the mushrooms with their liquid and stir to combine.
Preheat the broiler. Grease a baking dish that will comfortably fit the halibut with cooking spray and set it aside.
In a large saucepan, bring the wine, parsley, lemon and tarragon to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to a simmer and add the halibut. Cover the pan and poach until the flesh is opaque, about 8 minutes. Make sure the liquid doesn't come back to the boil. When the fish has cooked use a spatula and carefully place the fish into the prepared prepared baking dish. Season with salt and pepper.