French fish with beans

These days fine chefs pay lip service to the importance of nutritious food, but not many include tempting, healthy dishes in their menu.

fish beans 88 (photo credit: )
fish beans 88
(photo credit: )
These days fine chefs pay lip service to the importance of nutritious food. Unfortunately, not many include tempting, healthy dishes in their menu that are as enjoyable as their other, richer offerings. Last week we explored a menu that proved to be a shining exception. It was developed by Chef Desi Szonntagh of Cezanne at Le Merigot Hotel in Santa Monica, California. I have to admit that we were delighted by the restaurant's luscious truffle- and seafood-studded macaroni and cheese, the creamy potato gratin with leeks and the intriguing polenta with goat cheese. But to my surprise, my favorite dishes were the two healthy entrees we chose. They are part of the restaurant's "Fit for You" program, and are truly fit for a celebration. Some are low in fat; others are designed for carb- and cholesterol-conscious diners. One of these wholesome main courses, a sea bass with asparagus and a glaze of miso (Japanese soybean paste), was inspired by the chef's experience cooking in restaurants in Japan, where many dishes are naturally light. But it was his delicious, healthful interpretation of French fare that truly impressed me. We savored an entree of low-fat cod with white beans, tomatoes, tapenade (olive paste) and pesto. The fish sat atop the plump, tender beans, which were cooked with diced carrots and ripe tomatoes, and was garnished with a fresh basil leaf. Even this relatively simple dish looked like a painting, as befitted the name of the restaurant, with dots of brilliant green pesto around the fish and beans. Although this tasty combination of fish, black olives and pesto might seem to be a time-honored Riviera recipe, putting fish and beans together is a relatively recent custom in French culinary history. Even in Provencal fare, beans are served more often with meat. During the 1970s and early '80s, with the emphasis on lighter dishes as part of the nouvelle cuisine trend, fish gained increased importance, and some chefs created fish versions of traditional meat dishes. Chef Fernand Chambrette, my teacher during the years I studied at Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris, developed a wonderful version of fish cassoulet, which appeared in the book we co-authored, La Cuisine du Poisson. Made of fish fillets baked with garlic-flavored fresh white beans, glazed baby onions, ripe tomatoes and a little olive oil, this enticing entree was much lighter than classic cassoulet. Pairing fish with beans makes a lot of sense from a nutrition standpoint because both foods provide low-fat protein. The beans contribute healthful fiber as well and make the dish more satisfying. Other top French chefs also came up with recipes combining fish with beans but most were still exceedingly rich. Bernard Pacaud, chef of the fabulous L'Ambroisie in Paris, cooked red mullet with fava beans, red wine, leeks and tarragon, and enriched the sauce with a lavish dose of butter. Superchef Alain Ducasse, author of Les Recettes de La Riviera, matched sauteed cod with white beans, hot red pepper and sherry vinegar; he too finished the dish with plenty of butter, as well as olive oil and a garnish of deep-fried parsley. It took some time for chefs to dare to lower the fat in such entrees. Both professional chefs and home cooks have learned that by using good quality, fresh fish, cooking and seasoning it carefully, and moistening it with a judicious amount of extra virgin olive oil or nut oil, they can serve entrees that turn dinner into a healthful feast. Faye Levy is the author (with Fernand Chambrette) of the fish cookbook La Cuisine du Poisson. FISH FILLETS WITH WHITE BEANS, TOMATOES, OLIVES AND PESTO Use any fish fillets that you like. Obviously the finer and fresher the fish, the more delicious this dish will be. If you'd like the fish to be brown, you can roast it separately instead of baking it with the beans. To do this, put the fish on an oiled baking dish, brush it with olive oil and roast uncovered it at 200º for 10 minutes or until nearly tender, then finish cooking it for about 15 minutes on top of the beans. If you are using canned white beans, you can use the kind that come in tomato sauce. 1⁄2 small onion, chopped (optional) 1 carrot, cut in small dice (optional) 1 celery rib, cut in small dice (optional) 3 to 31⁄2 cups cooked white beans, drained, or two 425-gr. cans 2 cups diced fresh ripe tomatoes 1 to 2 garlic cloves, minced salt and freshly ground pepper 700 gr. fish steaks or fillets, about 2.5 cm. thick 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil 1⁄3 cup pitted black olives, coarsely chopped 1⁄3 cup pesto, packaged or homemade, plus more for serving 4 large whole basil leaves, for garnish Preheat oven to 200º. Cook onion, carrot and celery in a saucepan in enough water to just cover them for 7 minutes or until tender. Add cooked or canned beans and heat through. Stir in diced tomatoes, garlic, salt and pepper. Transfer mixture to a shallow baking dish. Set fish on top of bean mixture in one layer. Sprinkle fish with olive oil, salt and pepper. Cover and bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until fish can just be flaked but is not falling apart. To serve, spoon beans into shallow bowls or deep plates and top with the fish. Put a few teaspoons of chopped olives on each portion of beans, without mixing them in. Using a teaspoon, garnish the rim of each plate with a few dots of pesto. Top each fish portion with a whole basil leaf and serve. Serve more pesto separately. Makes 4 servings.