In Paris; At the dump
Diary of lunch in Paris and then a trip to the town dump. A recipe and eating notes.
Hello! My name is Rebecca May Johnson, I am a writer and cook and this is my Substack. This week’s newsletter is an account of a meal in Paris, a trip to the town dump, a recipe for smoked haddock with a rich sauce and steamed vegetables, and eating notes.
US readers! You can now pre-order my book Small Fires, An Epic in the Kitchen. It is being released on June 6 this year!
At the moderately grand brasserie next to Gare du Nord. Waiting staff are hectic looking after travellers and suitcases while attempting to maintain standards. White haired French-speaking people sit in the window and eat langoustines from a tiered plat de fruits de mer. A group of quite fashionably dressed music industry people have colonised a large area in the centre of the room: some are seated, some stand around their table greeting newcomers with dramatic but casual embraces, some are deferential and take up little space with arms clamped to their sides, some set the tone and issue orders. Their relaxed occupation is at odds with the energy of the restaurant – and my edgy hungry mood. We are initially squeezed into a tight space, wedged in with bags elbow to elbow with a pair finishing their set lunch and showing each other things on their phone. But the queue continues to bloom, the set lunch pair leave and a family of six need a table, and we are moved so the waiters can push the tables together. They assure us we are moving to a better spot to soften the apparent indignity of carrying our drinks and bags and menus in this somewhat formal setting. It is is true, we now sit at a spacious window seat on a leather banquette. Though they forget to move the salt and pepper and the napkins, so we steal some from another table and wipe our hands on the hem of the tablecloth.
I figure, given the quantity of seafood on the menu that the fish soup will be good: plenty of debris for stock. The dish also reminds me of my uncle who died last year, too young. He was a chef who cooked in a relaxed French style in a restaurant he ran with my aunt, and he made a very good fish soup served the same way, with croutons, rouille, and grated cheese.
fish soup with croutons, cheese and rouille
steak tartare and chips X 2
chestnut, chantilly and vanilla ice cream sundae
Both soups come in anachronistic full-bellied white ceramic bowls (I find out they are called ‘lion head’ bowls). Sam quite likes his onion soup. The fish soup is rich in flavour, rouille is garlicky and compelling, and the stretched melted cheese make it a drama. It reminds me of my uncle. Steak tartare – my first time – does not live up to expectations. I had anticipated a fresh-tasting dish with sharp punctuation, but it was indistinct and there was too much. Two women walk in and sit next to us. They are first visible from my seated position through the designer bags they put down on the table. The younger woman with long blonde hair is less authoritative in manner and has a Jimmy Choo bag in black. The older, colder woman with short ice blonde hair pulled back in a short ponytail has a black Hermès Kelly bag. She asks, commanding in tone, for a menu in English (we were not given a choice of language) and then takes charge. Initially, with no mention of food, she orders two pots of mint tea, against the expectations of the waiter, who is confused and checks whether they intend to eat. Then, they order two salads with lettuce and goat’s cheese on from the starter menu – no onion, yes, no onion, they repeat to the waiter – and French fries. They re-write the menu to suit them and when the food comes, it suits them. I am in awe of their self-possession.
The chestnut sundae leaves us giddy, and we rush to a nearby bookshop we have heard about before catching the train.
At the dump
I forgot to take out the bins so on Saturday drive to the dump to get rid of a bag with fish in it. We arrive as they are closing the gates so that the JCB digger type machine can crush the contents of each container. We are first in the queue of cars so have the best view of what is going on, which is worthy of our spectatorship.
Pet Shop Boys ‘Always On My Mind’ plays on the radio while the man rises up high in the cabin, smoothly ascending a steel track. From his elevated position he steers the body of the vehicle to each container where, with movements that are really quite delicate, he crushes metal, cardboard, non-recyclables and garden waste. So carefully, he picks up and holds three discarded mattresses, large pale tender objects. They hover mid-air for quite some time in its grip, an odd romance, their softness, fabric pulled over internal structures still intact, an end of so many nights sweating, dreaming, perhaps fucking and yearning, now hanging out there. They will be joined by my discarded haddock skin and crisp packets. The man operating the machine has neatly combed-back rocker hair. He is stylish even from quite a distance, through the car windscreen, and the window of his cabin. The machine, his arms. Another single mattress is moved. He takes a look down into the containers from his cabin, decides where force is needed. Sam notices that little stands emerge from the bottom of the vehicle before the crushing takes place, raising the rubber wheels off the ground, relieving the pressure on them.
It lasts about twenty minutes, his unexpectedly precise work. The man in the cabin gestures to the man on the ground, who understands him though he cannot hear him. The gate is reopened and we enter and drive past a new sight. The men working here have made a display of toys along the top of the metal fencing that surrounds the dump. All the Power Rangers, a Buzz Lightyear, teddies. Sinister to be watched over by the hit toys of my youth at the dump. The toys have been rescued from the steel claw – like the plot of a Toy Story movie – only to sit, cleaned up and skewered on metal fencing, reminding those passing of how long since childhood.
Smoked Haddock with Steamed Vegetables and Rich Mornay Sauce
I remembered I had a side of smoked haddock in the freezer on a Friday and thought - fish on Friday! – I took it out and made this dish. The smokiness of the fish is imparted to the butter it is baked with, which becomes part of the sauce and gives incredible depth.
I didn’t quite have enough milk so made up the quantities with double cream and water - feel free to just use milk for the sauce, maybe with a dash of cream for richness. This recipe is a document of what I did, so I’ve kept in what I used.
Serve two with leftovers (for fishcakes!), or 3-4
Baked Smoked Haddock
1 side of smoked haddock
1 shallot, halved and finely sliced
1 bay leaf
three slices of lemon
75g unsalted butter
How to Make:
Pre-heat the oven on to 180C fan (200C non-fan). In a baking dish lay a piece of baking paper big enough to wrap around the fish on top of a piece of foil of the same size. Onto the paper place the haddock skin side down and strew it with the sliced shallot, the bay leaf, the slices of lemon and the butter. Add a few grinds of black pepper. Then wrap it all up in the paper and the foil and fold over the edges of the foil to seal. Depending on the size of the fish, cook for 20-30 minutes, or until flaking. If using smaller pieces of haddock, cook for a shorter time. Save the cooking juices inside the paper to make the sauce. Keep the fish warm wrapped in foil in the oven (turned off) while you do the rest.
Just before the fish is ready, cook the vegetables.
3-4 medium size potatoes, peeled and cut into eighths
2-3 carrots peeled and cut into 1-inch sections
4 baby leeks, or two trimmed well cleaned leeks cut into 1inch sections
How to cook
Place a steaming basket over a few inches of boiling water in a saucepan with a teaspoon of salt in. Add the potatoes and steam them with the lid on for around 8 minutes before adding the carrots on top, and steam for a further c. 4 minutes then add the leeks for a further 5-ish minutes. Check with a knife that each vegetable is tender. When they are cooked leave to keep warm in the residual oven heat from cooking the fish.
butter and shallots and bay leaf from baking the fish
50g unsalted butter
a heaped tablespoon of plain flour
125ml white wine
100ml double cream
150g grated mature cheddar
1 heaped teaspoon Dijon mustard
How to make:
Pour the melted butter and shallots into the saucepan you used to steam the vegetables with a class of wine. Simmer for a 2-3 minutes gently bubbling until the alcohol has cooked off. Turn the heat off.
In a separate small saucepan melt the 50g butter in a pan and when it’s foaming add the flour and stir around for a minute. Then slowly whisk in half the milk over the heat so it’s incorporated and thickening. Then, whisk the butter flour milk mix into the pan with the wine and shallots with the rest of the milk, the cream, and the water. Stir over the heat until it thickens to the consistency of double cream. Stir in the cheddar and the mustard so the cheese melts and taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper if needed.
On a serving plate, place the whole side of haddock (peel off the skin), and surround it with vegetables. Pour most of the sauce to cover everything. Put the pan with the rest on the table. Serve a piece of fish with some vegetables with a little extra sauce from the pan if needed.
I used leftovers to make fishcakes (see eating notes below).
Frankfurter cut to make octopus shapes as in Midnight Diner two fried eggs, Japanese rice with butter and soy, homemade kimchi, and salty Italian chilli sauce from a shop in Turin – a mid-afternoon lunch after a day of lecturing when I was ravenous.
Frying fishcakes made from leftover haddock and vegetables, with leftover mashed potato from another meal, dipped in egg, flour and breadcrumbs and then fried. We had this with a chicory salad with a mustard dressing. And ketchup.
A tray with a mint tea and Soreen malt loaf with butter on as a snack.
Apple crumble made with Bramley apples and with a few blackberries in from the freezer as I didn’t have quite enough apples made to my mother’s superb method, except I did not have any wholemeal flour to mix into the crumble as she usually does, so just plain flour there. Eaten over the course of a week with double cream.
Heinz tomato soup, some slices of cheddar cheese, a hot Frankfurter sausage and a slice of Wakelyns rye bread. Wakelyns is a bakery on a farm working with a lot of grains intended to rehabilitate soil health in Suffolk. Their breads are excellent and I particularly like them with a boiled egg.
This Paris luncheon story is perfect. Now I need to figure out how to make myself a chestnut sundae
I’m baffled at your restraint at stretching out such a fine looking crumble over the course of a week. A lovely read xx