Research for my biography of Craig Claiborne, if I’m really going to have a feel for the world he knew, entails quite a bit of cooking—cooking the food that Craig knew and loved.
His tastes were wide-ranging. He was the first to bring authentic regional Italian cooking to this country: He introduced an unknown housewife named Marcella Hazan to the American public. He co-wrote (with Virginia Lee) the first American cookbook of genuine Chinese cuisine. Before Craig, the only Americans who had ever heard of the food of Sichuan were those of Chinese heritage. Vietnamese, Indian, Brazilian, and a dozen more—they were either unfamiliar or entirely unknown before Craig Claiborne wrote about them in the New York Times.
The way he did it, most of the time, would be to write features about experts raised in the particular traditions, like Marcella. They would come to his house and cook, and he would take meticulous notes. For all but his earliest years at the paper, the translation of those notes into recipes manageable in a home kitchen was mainly the work of Pierre Franey, a French chef who had been trained in the pure classic tradition but who could cook absolutely anything, and beautifully. It took Craig years of struggle to persuade the Times to give Pierre a co-byline, and even then it always read, “by Craig Claiborne [then a second line in a smaller font] with Pierre Franey.”
Because Craig was gay, a lot of people just assumed that he and Pierre were a couple, which drove Pierre and his wife and his three kids nuts. But they were a great team nonetheless, and although they enjoyed their adventures in the foods of the world, Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey considered traditional French cuisine to stand above all others.
And so that’s what I’ve been cooking. It is not easy to do. I started learning it—from Julia Volume One and the New York Times Cookbook (by C. Claiborne)—forty years ago, and I am still very far from mastering the art. But I dare say that a great many young tatted, shaved, and hardwared chefs who pride themselves on dazzling the palates of San Franciscans and New Yorkers couldn’t do a much better sole in white wine with mushrooms than...well, okay, maybe they could do it as well as I can, but they’d never try. Too boring. Too tame.
Of course they couldn’t really taste it. Their own palates have long since been bludgeoned into near-insensibility by overdoses of salt, capsaicin, and other toxins otherwise useful when modestly used.
They can throw together fried pig’s ears and peach confit, pasta with cockscombs and barely dead crustaceans, they can build towers of color, layers of ooze and crunch, shocks of habañero in smears of maple syrup, and maybe you’ll still taste whatever the dish is allegedly about—was it duck, was it fish?—but let ’em try sole with white wine and mushrooms and get it just right.
I got it just right the first time. I’m not bragging; I was lucky. Then there was the second time, to be described in due course. A dish like this is so sensitive to even the smallest errors. There is nowhere to hide. You can’t amp it up with fennel pollen and asparagus foam.
Okay, here’s the dish. For two.
I got glistening-fresh filets of petrale sole from the San Francisco Fish Company, in the Ferry Building, where they sell nothing but the sustainable and best. I had always been rather a snob about Pacific flatfish—too flabby, too soft compared to Atlantic flounders, which in turn of course can’t hold a candle to Dover or Mediterranean sole—but petrale is great if you treat it like the delicate princess it is. Never has a foodstuff been worthier of the warning Don’t Fuck It Up.
Across the aisle is the mushroom place. I bought a couple of king trumpets, which really aren’t all that different from regular white mushrooms, just prettier and a little less earthy-tasting.
The most beautiful cooking vessel I own is an oval stainless-steel-lined copper...would you call it a dish?—I don’t think it’s a casserole, it’s too shallow—with handles at each end. Elizabeth gave it to me, and I remember absolutely swooning over it. In it I cooked some fine-chopped shallots in butter and then the mushrooms, sliced fine along the vertical axis. I poured in white wine—an unoaked nowhere-near-D.O.C. French chardonnay that we get cheap but is delicious—in about the amount I was guessing would come about halfway up the fish, and boiled off the alcohol.
I let that cool all the way down and then laid in the fish. I had to add a little more wine to get the level right. Fish stock would have been better. Then you do this cool French thing of cutting a piece of wax paper to fit, buttering it, and laying it over the top. Oh, and I had put some bits of butter on top of the fish as well. Tiny sprinkle of salt, no pepper.
You bring it to just short of a boil on top of the stove and then move it—gently, gently—into a 350-degree oven. After four and a half minutes I poked it with a knife and it was already just about done, but still nice and firm. Whew.
I have a big wide spatula that I almost never need to use, but for this it was perfect: I lifted the filets onto a warm plate and covered them with foil to keep warm, and they did not break, which for me with sole, I believe, was a first. Some of the mushrooms stuck to the fish, while most of them I just poured into a saucepan along with what turned out to be a ton of juice—I mean, maybe two cups? a lot more than I expected—which I proceeded to boil down as fast as I could to two or three tablespoons. To that I added crème fraîche, maybe a quarter of a cup, and it thickened up nicely. Tasted great. I mounted it with a tablespoon of butter just for the French hell of it, and it tasted even better.
Your sole doucement, doucement onto hot plates, sauce it up, sprinkle with a few snips of chive, and praise the Lord.
Then last night I did it again, except with a couple of shrimp chopped up and added at the very end. Well, I didn’t do it again—I tried to do it again, and I Fucked It Up.
I must have cooked the mushrooms too long, first of all, because they were meaty and tough. I put the oven on 400 instead of 350 and kept the fish in for five minutes instead of 4.5, and those two factors together made it soft and fall-aparty, no resistance to the tooth at all—yucko. The wine I used—some Argentinian torrontés-chardonnay blend—must have been too harsh, and I didn’t use enough cream, and I didn’t reduce it enough either, so the sauce was both too acidic and too thin. I could have corrected that, I suppose, but I forgot to even taste it. Also I didn’t add any butter.
I mean, everything was just this close to right, but the combination of those relatively small errors made what had been a truly sublime dish kind of a mess. Not bad, really, but precisely the kind of thing that gave old-fashioned French cooking a bad name back in the day.