A French Christmas: starters

Last year, as I’ve said, I was lucky enough to spend the Christmas holidays in France again. To my delight, I was met by lots of snow that carried on just until Christmas. But not quite.

My dreams of finally experiencing a White Christmas melted together with the snow on 23rd December.

I really have fun with my friend Nelly planning and preparing the Christmas Eve dinner.

We had our share of laughs and near disasters but hey!, that’s part of the fun too.

In France, although I’m told the turkey plays and important role at the Christmas lunch table, fish is always present, in some form or other. Last year it was our main dish. This year, the fish featured in the starters.

This is how we started our Christmas Eve dinner:

Blinis with salmon, soured cream and dill

Blinis topped with crème fraîche or soured cream, smoked salmon, fresh dill and some lemon zest. You can also serve them with some lemon wedges on the side for guests to drizzle some lemon juice on the top (optional).

Devils on horseback

Probably the easiest canapé in the world: prunes wrapped in pancetta or bacon secured with a toothpick, then heated up in the oven until the bacon is golden and crispy.

Fish gratin – © Gabriela R.

Mixture of different fish (roughly 100g per person, remember this is just a starter, not a main)

We used: sole, prawns, scallops and monkfish


4 tbsp. butter, 4 tbsp. flour, 500ml milk, generous splash of cream and dash of cognac.

Pan-poach the fish in fish bouillon for 3-4 minutes. Drain and leave to one side.

In a separate pan, make the béchamel. I did the traditional version this time but with a tiny twist: the addition of single cream and a dash of cognac makes for a creamier end result.

I’ll go into more detail in a later post but in case you’re wondering, here’s how to make béchamel sauce:

Melt the butter in a pan and add the flour. Mix thoroughly with a wooden spoon until everything is amalgamated and you get a paste. The flour has to cook a bit. Then add the milk and mix with a whisker. As soon as it thickens, it’s ready. Take off the heat, add the cream and the cognac, season and leave to cool. Only add the cream once the sauce is ready, otherwise it might split.

If you’re not using the béchamel straight away – this dish is ideal to be made in advance and assembled at the last minute – leave it to cool outside the fridge covered with cling film. If you don’t cover it, a thick crust will form as it cools and that’s not very nice.

Once you’re ready to serve the dish, get your ramekins – it helps if they have a lid -, place a mixture of the poached fish into each of them – be sure to include a bit of each – and then top with the béchamel. I like to mix everything a bit so that all the fish has some sauce. Place a generous dollop of béchamel on top and cook the ramekins, covered, for 5-10 minutes to give time for everything to heat up – especially if you’re using the ingredients from the fridge – then cook, uncovered, until the top turns golden and starts to bubble. Serve straight away.

Note 1: to poach the fish, you need a pan – rectangular ones are the best – with hot liquid in it enough to cover the fish completely. It has to be at boiling point. Then add the fish and leave to poach for the specified time.

Note 2: you can add the milk hot or cold. If you take the time to heat it a bit, the béchamel will cook quicker.


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