Smoked herring and potatoes bathed in a gentle vinaigrette is a classic French bistro starter. In this rendition, two types of beets are added to the plate — cooked red beets and raw, striped heirloom beets — along with onion and cilantro. I was inspired to prepare the dish this way after encountering it last winter at one of my favorite Paris bistros, Le Desnoyez, where presentation is an art form and the food is modern and delicious.
Harengs pommes à l’huile / Smoked herring with potatoes and beets
All of the ingredients for this dish can be easily found in Paris. Every fishmonger carries unpackaged smoked herring — harengs saurs — and it is also available in supermarkets, vacuum packed in plastic. Red beets are sold precooked, which simplifies preparation, and the striped chiogga heirloom beets have come into fashion in recent years and can be found at farmers markets and upscale food shops.
Getting hold of the ingredients elsewhere may prove challenging. Smoked herring is available in Britain (Sainsbury’s carries it), but it appears to be quite difficult to find in the United States. I scouted around online and found some sites in Quebec offering smoked herring — in large quantities. This site, for example, offers shipments of herring in boxes that hold 18 pounds (8 kilos), or 60-80 fish per box…
As always, however, improvisation is the name of the game. Americans could substitute smoked mackerel (preferably) or smoked salmon for the herring. If you cannot find striped beets, you could slice up some raw red beets or another heirloom variety. The aim is to create a dish that is both beautiful and tasty, paying attention to color as well as flavor.
Although harengs pommes à l’huile is traditionally served as a starter in France, it also makes a lovely lunch dish. Serve it with fresh crusty bread or toast alongside, and uncork a bottle of white. At lunchtime you could follow up with cheese and fruit, while if this is your starter at dinnertime, afterwards anything goes. For example, you could create a bistro-style meal by starting with the herring, following up with boeuf bourguignon or roast chicken, and finishing with crème caramel or chocolate mousse.
Once you have assembled the ingredients, preparation is quick and easy. This dish is traditionally served in winter — now’s the time.