Fish-Stuffed Cabbage Leaves

This is a winter specialty from Aline Aubé, owner with her husband, Olivier, of the poissonerie du centre in Louviers, on rue General de Gaulle. Each day Aline makes a half dozen different dishes to tempt her customers, using whatever fish is abundant and in season. Recently she offered these tempting little packets which were flying out of the store so fast I decided I’d better try them too. Aline carefully placed the last two in a container then scooped up the remaining cream sauce intended to bathe them. She looked at them, decided there wasn’t quite enough cream and added a generous dollop of fresh cream from a bowl that sits in ice on her fish counter, so customers can buy it to sauce their fish, since fish and cream are synonymous in Normandy.

Fish and cabbage are not, however. Usually in France, cabbage is stuffed with an aromatic blend of pork and herbs. It is hardly a light combination, which makes this dish such a wonderful and surprising contrast. I asked Mme. Aube what gave her the idea to use fish as a stuffing for cabbage.

“When you work with fish all day long and love it the way I do, you naturally think about using it everywhere,” she said modestly. “It just made sense to me to stuff these leaves with fish.”

Mme. Aube told me she prefers her fish stuffed cabbage drizzled simply with lemon juice, even though for her customers she bathes them in cream. I have tried it both ways and like a combination.

1-½ pounds white fish fillets, preferably lingcod, flounder, true cod or whiting, bones and skin removed

1 shallot, minced

¾ cup crème fraîche

Sea salt and fresh and finely ground black pepper, to taste

6 large, pale green inner leaves from a Savoy cabbage

The minced zest from one untreated lemon

2 tablespoons freshly-squeezed lemon juice

Fleur de sel or fine sea salt

  1. Place the fish, the shallot, half the cream, and a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper in the work bowl of a food processor and process until homogeneous and elastic, which will take a minute or two. Cook a teaspoonful of the filling in a small pan over medium heat and taste it for seasoning. Adjust if necessary.
  2. Prepare a large bowl of ice water. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the cabbage leaves and cook them just until they lose their stiff crispness, but not until they become limp, 2 to 3 minutes. Carefully remove the leaves from the water and transfer them to the ice water. Leave them in the ice water just long enough for them to completely cool off. Carefully transfer them from the water, letting the excess water drain from them, then transfer them to a surface covered with a tea towel, and pat off any excess water.
  3. Gently smooth out the cabbage leaves on a work surface. Trim away the thickest part of their stems. Divide the lemon zest in two-thirds. Use two-thirds for the packets, and stir the other one-third into the remaining cream.
  4. Divide the fish filling into 6 equal-sized portions. Place one portion of the filling in the center of a cabbage leaf. Sprinkle one-sixth of the lemon zest over the fish filling, then fold the cabbage leaf over it to completely enclose it. Keep the leaf closed with a skewer if necessary. Repeat with the remaining fish filling, cabbage leaves and lemon zest.
  5. Bring water to a boil in the bottom of a steamer and place the packets in the steamer. Cover and steam until the fish filling has turned completely opaque and is cooked through, 20 minutes.
  6. While the packets are steaming, place the remaining cream and the lemon zest in a small saucepan over very low heat so that it heats just to the steaming point. It should not boil.
  7. To serve, place one packet in the center of a warmed dinner plate. Pour 1 teaspoon lemon juice over the packet, then pour over about 1 tablespoon of the hot cream with lemon zest. Sprinkle with fleur de sel and serve immediately.

6 first-course servings

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