Growing up in the Roberts household, fishing book-ended many days of our outdoor adventures.
Dawn and dusk, with rod in hand, we’d troop down to the shoreline by the river or ease ourselves into the old aluminum boat at the lake.
For my father, fishing was as much about simply being in the outdoors as it was about catching trout. His tackle box always sported the newest and brightest lures, but fancy gear aside, a successful day on the water was guaranteed with the first cast. My father’s gentle approach to fishing kept life fun and hopeful. And delicious, because cooking trout really can be a tasty experience.
Because fishing and eating fish was imprinted on me as a summertime event, my grown-up summer menus reflect that inner appetite. These definitely are the days for more fish on the grill and in the cast-iron skillet. Of course, there are plenty of options beyond trout at the fish counter. And ways for cooking such lovely specimens as fresh halibut, albacore and salmon are just as plentiful.
One go-to technique in my playbook can be distilled down to two words: “Beurre blanc,” a sauce both buttery and zesty that will support the fish without overwhelming it.
A classic beurre blanc is made by taking a large amount of white wine and/or vinegar, and simmering it down, along with a handful of chopped shallots, and maybe a pinch of fresh herbs. This is called a reduction.
That’s step one. At this point, a large amount of butter is whisked, one tiny dollop at a time, into the simmering reduction. All that’s left is a fine-tuning of flavors with the addition of salt and pepper.
My beurre blanc education was expanded a few years back after a chat with owner/chef Iain Duncan, of Aqua, a former eating establishment in downtown Corvallis. I had asked him how home cooks could inject some Pacific Rim/Hawaiian influences into their nightly menus. One approach, he advised, would be to incorporate a few Asian/Hawaiian elements into said beurre blanc. Shredded bits of fresh ginger, a drop of sesame oil, and a splash of soy sauce, for example.
I have discovered this to be an exciting way to achieve Asian-influenced flavors in elegant style when working with my go-to summer seafood grills.
And even though the sauces here are certainly rich, the idea is to use them sparingly, as an accent to the grilled albacore (or halibut, swordfish, salmon or ...).
Classic Beurre Blanc
I’m providing this classic — and basic — preparation so you can do as I have done, which is to experiment and develop your own spin-offs.
4 medium shallots, peeled and finely chopped
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup white wine vinegar
4 tablespoons heavy cream
1 pound butter
Salt and pepper to taste
Combine the finely chopped shallots with the white wine and vinegar in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Gently simmer the mixture until virtually all the liquid has evaporated (reduce by about 90 percent).
Add the heavy cream and gently heat it almost to a simmer.
Cut the butter into 1-inch cubes, and add them to the shallot-cream infusion. Whisk the sauce over high heat (but don’t let the liquid boil) until all the butter has been incorporated.
Adjust the seasoning, adding salt and pepper to taste. If the sauce seems flat, add wine vinegar a few drops at a time. If the sauce tastes harsh or overly acidic, whisk in more butter.
Holding beurre blanc: If held properly, beurre blanc prepared just before a lengthy meal will stay intact for several hours; leave it in the saucepan, covered, in a warm area, such as a warm oven, plate warmer, or on the back of the stove over very low heat. If necessary, the saucepan can be placed in a pan of very hot (but not boiling) water. If it is held for any length of time, it will begin to thicken and must be thinned periodically with heavy cream, water or other appropriate liquid. If it isn’t thinned and stirred every 30 minutes or so, it is likely to break.
With this basic preparation, there are countless ways to change its style prior to whisking in the butter. As I have done in the following two recipes, consider adding splashes of ponzu sauce or soy sauce, chili-garlic paste, chopped garlic, various herbs ... it’s an endless list of possibilities.
Adapted from “Sauces, Classical and Contemporary Sauce Making,” by James Peterson.
Beurre Blanc Sauce with Chinese Mustard and Ponzu
Makes about 1-1/3 cups of sauce, enough for 2 to 3 pounds of grilled albacore or other firm-fleshed fish, such as halibut, sturgeon or swordfish.
2 tablepoons prepared Chinese mustard (I use Beaver brand, “extra hot”)
2 tablespoons ponzu sauce (I use Kikkoman brand; or regular soy sauce)
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 tablespoon rice vinegar or white wine vinegar
1-1/2 tablespoons minced shallot
Pinch of ground white pepper
3 tablespoons whipping cream
1/2 cup chilled unsalted butter, cut into 32 pieces (cut the cube lengthwise into quarters, then cut cross-wise to produce 32 chunks)
In a small bowl, whisk together the mustard and the ponzu sauce; set aside (you’ll be adding it to the butter sauce at the very end of cooking).
In a small pot, combine the wine, vinegar, shallots and white pepper. Bring to a boil and simmer until it is reduced to about 4 tablespoons (this will take about 5 or 6 minutes). Whisk in the cream and boil just until it begins to thicken and reduce slightly, about 1 minute.
MAKE-AHEAD TIP: the sauce can be prepared to this point and refrigerated for several days. I like to make several batches and store it in a jar so I can make this sauce in a very short amount of time, with a lot less fuss.
When ready to finish the sauce, bring the reduction to a boil. Turn the burner to low, then whisk in the chilled pieces of butter one or two at a time. Keep whisking steadily until all of the butter has been incorporated. Whisk in about half of the reserved mustard-ponzu mixture, then taste and add more of the mustard mixture as desired. If you aren’t serving the sauce immediately, keep it warm over very low heat (or in the top of a double boiler set over hot water) or the sauce will begin to separate as it cools.
To serve: Spoon a portion of the sauce onto the center of each person’s dinner plate then add a serving of the cooked fish. Serve immediately, with additional sauce passed around at the table.
Spicy Beurre Blanc with Ginger and Black Bean-Garlic Sauce
Makes about 1 cup.
I use this Beurre Blanc spin-off a lot in the summer, particularly when extra-special out-of-town guests arrive, expecting a delicious home-cooked meal. Don’t omit the whipping cream. It helps bind the sauce.
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon finely minced yellow onion
1 teaspoon peeled finely shredded fresh ginger
2 teaspoons chili garlic sauce
1 teaspoon ponzu sauce or regular soy sauce
1 teaspoon black bean garlic sauce
3/4 cup dry white wine
1 tablespoon whipping cream
1/2 cup chilled unsalted butter, cut into 32 pieces
Heat the olive oil with the sesame oil in a heavy-bottomed, medium-sized skillet over medium high heat. Add the onion and ginger and saute for 1 minute. Stir in the chili-garlic sauce, ponzu sauce, black bean garlic sauce, and the wine. Simmer until the liquid is reduced by half, which will take about 5 minutes. Whisk in the whipping cream and bring to a boil. Remove from heat. The sauce can be prepared to this point and refrigerated for several days.
When ready to serve, complete the sauce: First, bring the mixture to a simmer over medium-high heat. Turn the heat to low, then gradually whisk in the chilled pieces of butter, one or two at a time. Keep whisking steadily until all of the butter has been incorporated. If you aren’t serving the sauce immediately, keep it warm over very low heat or the sauce will begin to separate as it cools.
To serve, spoon a portion of the sauce onto the center of each person’s dinner plate then add a serving of the fish. Serve immediately, with additional sauce passed around at the table.
Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist, and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.