Saturday, March 3, 2012

Weekend Cooking: Les Miserables Matelote

I am reading Les Miserables as part of the read-along at There is a button in my right column. At the same time, I ALWAYS love participating in Weekend Cooking at (another button to the right).

During my reading of Les Mis, I accidentally stumbled upon a way of combining the two! Here is what happened...

I was reading a passage about a group of young students, as follows, "He was, moreover, one of the students who had learned most during their course in Paris; knew that the best coffee was at the Cafe Lemblin, and the best billiard table at the Cafe Voltaire; that you could find good rolls and good girls at the hermitage on the Boulevard du Maine, broiled chickens at Mother Saguet's, excellent chowders at the Barriere de la Cunette, and a peculiar light white wine at the Barriere do Combat."

I paused there in my reading because I thought that it would be fun to see whether any of those places in Paris were still around!

I googled that passage...and ANOTHER TRANSLATION of Les Mis popped up. It was the same, except the roasted chicken was now called "spatchcocked" chicken and chowder was called "matelote." Now I was really curious! Spatchcocked chicken is a type of butterflied chicken. I talked about it on Wonderous Words Wednesday this past Wednesday if you want to take a look...there is a great video of someone expertly spatchcocking a chicken.

Next, I had to figure out what a matelote was. I googled that, and it turned out to be a dish made of fish, wine, mushrooms, and pearl onions. I found the recipe and made it!

The recipe can be found at

This classic French fish chowder is not as well known as Bouillabaisse, but it is wonderful--often known as the fisherman's coq au vin. Coming from an inland region of France, it traditionally uses eel or other fresh fish--and either red or white wine. Cognoscenti quibble over names and ingredients, as if soup has the rigid requirements of puff pastry. I say, enjoy whatever version appeals to you--and serve it as a meal to 4-6 lucky people, with boiled potatoes, salad, and French bread on the side. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------

2-3 strips bacon 1 large onion, sliced 2 cloves garlic, minced 2 cups wine (either a red Burgundy/Cote du Rhone or a dry white Cote du Rhone/French vermouth) 2 cups fish stock or clam juice 2 Tablespoons minced parsley 1 bay leaf 1/2 teaspoon thyme big pinch of black pepper big pinch of allspice 1 pound mushrooms, small or cut to mouthful size 20 small boiling onions, unpeeled and with crosses cut into their roots 2 pounds of freshwater fish (preferably eel, but perch or trout or catfish is great), cut in slabs. Traditionally the slabs include skin and bones, but it's a lot easier to eat fillets. In fact, the popular "catfish nuggets" you find in the market are hard to beat.

Garnish: "Canapes"--little white bread triangles freshly sauteed in butter.

Fry the bacon in a large saucepan. When crisp, remove the bacon and reserve. Add the onion and garlic to the bacon grease and saute until tender. Pour in the wine and the stock, add the parsley, thyme, bay leaf, pepper, and allspice, bring to a simmer and let it cook for 30 to 45 minutes.

While the soup is simmering, prepare the remaining additions. First, put the little onions into a pan of boiling water and cook them for a few minutes. Drain--the peels will come off easily. Melt a couple Tablespoons of butter over a medium high heat in the same pan (water poured out), then add the mushrooms and toss until they are nicely browned. Remove them to a bowl. Add more butter to the pan and throw in the peeled onions, tossing them until they are patchy brown. Add them to the mushrooms. Deglaze the pan with water and pour all that brown goodness into the simmering broth.

When 15 minutes away from serving, bring the soup to a boil and add the fish. Let it boil slowly for 8-10 minutes, until the fish is just done, then remove the fish to a serving tureen and keep warm. Scrape the onions and mushrooms into the broth, turn to a high heat, and boil hard for 5 minutes to reduce the soup and concentrate its flavors. Pour over the soup, garnish with the buttery canapes, and serve immediately.

The onions turned out to be a fun surprise! I had not worked with unpeeled pearl onions before, and thought that it was going to be a lot of work. But, as you can see, I followed the recipe and boiled them in their skins for a while. The water turned a lovely color, and I remembered that in days gone by onion skins were used to create dyes. When I was done boiling them, I threw some ice cubes on top. When they were cool enough, I squeezed them and they shot right out. It was fun. And, look how pretty they were!
By the way, I am including this in Novel Foods! If you like to read about food derived from novels - like this post(!) - click the link and check it out!!


  1. Aside from the fact that you have provided the recipe for another unique dish, I love the way you describe the preparation process. You put the reader into the kitchen with you, which adds so much to your posts.

  2. I love how reading Les Mis inspired you in the kitchen!

  3. Dave and JoAnn- thanks! I really enjoyed this!

  4. Soup looks delicious, I loved how you tied it into Les Mis!

  5. Great post! I really enjoy matching excerpts from the books I'm reading with recipes and other cooking descriptions. Your end result looks delicious.

  6. Love your experience with the pearl onions. That really does look like coq au vin, except that it's fish!

  7. That's such a great tip for the onions. I, too, enjoyed your post. Books and food are a great combo.

  8. Libby, what a delightful post this is!!! I love that you were inspired by Les Mis to create this weekend cooking post. The dish sounds just wonderful. I wish I had known that trick about boiling the pearl onions in water and then slipping off the skins! I spent so much time peeling a pound of them one Thanksgiving morning.. SO time consuming on such a busy cooking day! haha! I will definitely use the boiling method next time.

    1. Going to have to remember the onion trick myself. As long as the onions are cool enough it is a perfect task to assign to kids as long as they do not shoot onions at one another!

  9. This is a great post- you combined history, classic literature and cooking in such a unique way.

  10. I had never heard of matelote so I am very thankful for your finding out for us. I made bouillabaisse for a previous edition of Novel Food: I like fish stews. Indeed, pearl onions are fun.

  11. Hi Simona! I did not know about matelote either until I stumbled across this translation of Les Mis...even my KIDS ended up liking it (the food, not the book!).