Sunday, April 22, 2007

Late season poutine

Not all foods can be blessed with good looks, like the emerald pea pods or deep orange gariguette strawberries that keep jumping off the market stalls straight into my basket this week. At its best poutine is translucent and silvery, but more often it's simply a grayish mass. A close look reveals hundreds of sardines so tiny and undeveloped that they are almost transparent (the word for these is alevins).
For me poutine has the same appeal as sushi, which I constantly crave in Nice because there are so few places to find it. You can poach poutine in water, fry it in a fritter or stir it into eggs for an omelette, but I think it's best raw, with just a drizzling of olive oil and a squirt of lemon. Dominic Le Stanc serves them this way on toasted pain au levain at his bistro La Merenda, and I've copied him ever since. I only once made the disastrous mistake of washing the poutine, which turns it into slimy sludge.
I haven't indulged in much poutine this year, but time is running out: the season started in late March and is nearly over. Nice is the only place in France where you will find poutine, apparently because the laws about fishing these alevins haven't changed here since 1860. Still, the local catch is rather scarce and much of what I've seen this year comes from the Italian riviera.
The poutine that you see in this picture can only just be called poutine - the fish have developed a silver skin and are closer to being friture (little fish that are usually dipped in flour and fried). I thought I would see how they tasted raw but the experiment backfired. Both my son Sam, who is always game to try something weird, and I screwed up our faces at the bitter taste. I then tried poaching them, as suggested by the woman at the fish market, and the bitterness was gone - but so was the delicate taste of the sea that I've previously found in raw poutine.
Luckily I had also bought a big slab of the first locally fished tuna, which I seared in my ridged iron grill pan and served alongside fresh peas stewed with baby carrots and young garlic shoots. When one season ends, another always begins.

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