This dish was inspired by Lydia over at The Perfect Pantry. A while back, she had posted a recipe for Sea Bass with Vanilla Cream Sauce that just intrigued me as I had never seen vanilla used for anything outside of dessert and baked goods, let alone with meat/fish. I mean, there’s fish…and vanilla. Huh?
There’s really no reason vanilla can’t be used for other things (e.g. a la chocolate and chicken), but its funny how you just sort of typecast things. Kind of like how my colander is only for pasta–it was embarrassingly shocking for me when I realized I could also use it for boiling potatoes (…or anything other than pasta). Vanilla with fish seemed like another such “aha!” kind of moment…just not as embarrassing. 😉 This idea bounced around in my head for a while, all but forgotten, and then I was reminded of vanilla and fish once again when it showed up on French Laundry at Home.
And so it was decided. I had to try this exotic combination. Unfortunately, in my excitement to give this curious sauce a taste, I hastily went ahead and forgot a rather key ingredient in the sauce (no, not the vanilla!): stock. The lack of stock made for a sauce kind of lacking body, so I was pretty peeved. The vanilla paired wonderfully and was not at all overwhelming or awkwardly sweet (I had a hard time imagining what it would be like)–it just went right with the fish as if it belonged. I know that this could have been better though and I’m going to have to revisit this one again later with stock in hand. I even wrote everything down ahead of time that I meant to do only to not bother reading it and not follow directions….but anyways. Next time, I’m going to get this dish just right by following my own instructions (and I’ll plate it on brown plates, not white–woops!). I’m too in love with vanilla not to. 😮
One thing I did do according to plan though was poaching the fish. I had never poached Mahi (or any fish) before, and the outcome was really something. It seemed as if this was about as soft and tender you could make the filet without it just falling apart (in a good way!). The flavor was also very delicate: juicy, fresh, and vibrant. You could still taste that this was fish, but not in that icky fishy way (which I’m a bit averse to). I had to say I was pretty impressed with the outcome of such a simple cooking technique (I’m poaching things left and right now). If you’ve never heard of poaching, the idea is simple: you make a flavorful solution, boil it, drop it to a very gentle simmer, and then put the to-be-poached-item in the solution to cook gently where it will be tender, moist, and infused with the solution. Its like boiling, but in a way that is good. 😉
- ~1 lb Mahi Mahi
- Poaching liquid
- 1-1.5 cups dry white wine (I used Sauvignon Blanc)
- 1-1.5 cups chicken stock
- 1 Bay leaf
- a few black peppercorns
- a pinch of fennel seeds
- 1-2 cardamom pods
- zest and juice of one lemon
- Vanilla Cream sauce
- 1.25 cups heavy cream
- 1/2-3/4 cup dry white wine (I used Sauvignon Blanc)
- 1/2 cup chicken stock
- 1 whole vanilla bean
- 1 small shallot
- a little more than 4 Tbsp (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
- ground black pepper
- dash of cayenne pepper
First, carefully remove the skin and debone the Mahi (which is pretty easy compared to other fish which I have no patience for). I sliced the fish into 1/3 lb steaks, but do whatever you think seems appropriate.
Now, prepare the poaching solution. Unlike previous poaching dishes, we will not use this solution to create the final sauce as it would simply taste too fishy. So in a large saucepan (I used my dutch oven as it is the perfect size for this), add a coarsely chopped shallot, the zest and juice of one lemon, and mix in all of the remaining poaching solution ingredients. The sweet flavors of the wine, lemon, and spices will lightly infuse the fish while the remaining items will give it some savory body. Get this solution up to a boil and let it boil gently for about 10 minutes. Then drop the heat down, giving it time to reach just barely simmering.
Meanwhile, start working on the sauce while you wait for the poaching liquid to reach the right temperature. Chop a shallot and sauté it in a small knob of butter for about 3 minutes. Then, pour in both the broth (which you won’t forget, unlike me) and the white wine. Slit a vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape the seeds out and into the mixture. Add the pod to the mix as well for added vanilla flavor.
Now that the poaching solution is just right, carefully place the fish in, ensuring all pieces are submerged in the liquid. Do not cover the pan as that will increase the pressure and therefore the temperature. Instead, cut a round of parchment paper and place it directly on top of the poaching liquid so that the liquid doesn’t evaporate off as quickly. The fish should poach in this liquid for no more than 10 minutes. Carefully, flip the fish once at the five minute mark, being very careful not to break the steaks apart (they will become really tender during poaching). They are done when easily pierced with a knife, at which point, you should very carefully remove them from the liquid and set them aside on the plate you intend to serve on (if you can avoid white plates, use something dark instead. White on white, as you saw above, looks boring). Put this somewhere to keep warm until your sauce is ready.
Back to the sauce. After about 4-5 minutes of letting that get hot and bubbly, add in the cream, dropping the heat down to medium. Let this simmer for a few minutes, being sure to stir periodically. While you wait, periodically add in the butter in small chunks (e.g. 1 Tbsp each), stirring until fully melted down and incorporated before adding more (you don’t want the sauce to break).
Once you’ve added every last bit of butter, let another few minutes pass and then strain the sauce to filter out the vanilla pod and shallots so that you have a nice smooth sauce. Let the strained sauce simmer very gently and add salt, pepper, and cayenne pepper to taste.
Plate the fish, ladle on some sauce, and enjoy!