Saturday, January 2. 2016
Thought I'd share a recipe I evolved for two since I tried it last night, working mostly from memory and hunch, and it came out marvelous. My original idea was to write it up and mail it to a cousin, but then I thought of a couple more people who might enjoy it. And then it dawned on me that I could just as easily post it here for the masses who read this blog.
The basic recipe is "Baked Fish with Capers and Olives" from Nancy Harmon Jenkins, The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook, which I've transcribed and annotated here. That recipe calls for two pounds of fish to serve 6-8. I picked out three filets from a bag of frozen pacific cod, probably a bit less than 1 lb. I also had two Yukon gold potatoes on hand, so I peeled them (not necessary) and cut them up into a rough 1/2-inch dice. Put them in a bowl, added some extra virgin olive oil (about a tablespoon, a generous amount), salt and pepper. Also coarsely chopped three cloves of garlic, added to the potatoes, then spread them out in a 9x12 baking dish (effectively oiling the dish). I placed the fish in the middle of the pan, moving the potatoes to the side.
Heat the oven to 400F. In the same empty bowl (no, I didn't wash), I put one 14 oz. can of diced fire-roasted tomatoes, a teaspoon of lemon juice (not fresh, but do it right if you want), 1/2 teaspoon of sugar, about two tablespoons of capers, and about one-half cup of green olives (from the Dillons olive bar: large, pitted, no stuffing; cut in half lengthwise). Stir this mixture up, then spoon it over the fish. Sprinkle bread crumbs on top. (I used "gluten free" but you can probably find something better.) Finally, drizzle a little more olive oil on top (I used about 2 teaspoons).
Bake for 35-40 minutes, by which the potatoes should be done, the sauce bubbly, and the fish flaky. The recipe above also promises browned bread crumbs, but mine stay pretty white (although they do add some texture. And that's it: about 10-12 minutes of prep, plus the wait while it bakes. You could add a green salad -- I'd probably do horiatiki (Greek)  or panzanella (Italian)  or maybe fattoush (Lebanese)  depending on what I had on hand (or some ad hoc mix, since they're all pretty compatible).
If the fish is frozen (and not very thick) you don't even need to thaw it out. Fresh tomatoes would be more work, and unless they're home grown aren't worth the trouble (use them in the salad). Use any kind of flaky white fish -- you can probably get away with farm fish like swai or tilapia but it won't be as good as cod. I suppose you could try this with salmon, but I'd rather do something else with it . Bluefish should work. Catfish might -- I've never tried baking it . For salt cod, try this (it's a fair amount of work, and a staple that was once cheap enough to feed to slaves but isn't anymore).
 Horiatiki (Greek) salad: toss together romaine lettuce, cucumber (peeled, seeded, chopped), red onion (chopped), tomatoes (cut into wedges or chunks), bell pepper (any color, sliced thin), kalamata olives (pitted), feta cheese, parsley, anchovies, capers (most of these are optional, but it won't be recognized as a Greek salad without the lettuce, tomatoes, olives, and feta; the capers aren't in Jenkins' recipe). For dressing, use 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil, juice of 1/2 lemon, 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano, salt and pepper to taste: shake it up, pour it on, and toss.
 Panzanella is an Italian salad with bread -- ciabatta works well, cut the crust off and dice it; mix it with shopped tomatoes so it starts to get mushy (it should blend into the salad, not stand out like croutons -- nothing against croutons). Also use romaine lettuce, red onion, cucumber, and basil (again, more or less -- the bread and tomatoes are key). Not in the recipe, but you can add some grated parmesan. For dressing, use 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, 1/4 cup red wine vinegar, 1 tablespoon balsamic, salt and pepper.
 Fattoush is another bread salad, from Lebanon, but here you want some crunch: traditionally use toasted pita bread, although I'd rather make croutons from French bread than use those pita crisps that show up at most local restaurants. (The best I've made was with Turkish pide bread, which is not the same thing as pita.) Use romaine lettuce, cucumber, radishes (chunked), scallions (chopped), tomatoes (chunked), parsley, mint (again, more or less). Jenkins calls for pickles ("plain brine-pickled cucumbers, not sweetened or heavily flavored with garlic or dill"), which isn't a bad idea but I'd rather add capers, and I'm surprised she didn't include olives (kalamata, pitted, coarsely chopped) and/or feta. For dressing, crush a couple garlic cloves in some kosher salt, then add 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, 1/4 cup lemon juice, and 2 tablespoons of ground sumac.
 The easiest thing to do with salmon is to marinate it in teriyaki sauce (equal parts, e.g. 1/4 cup each, regular soy sauce, sake [Japanese rice wine], and sugar) for half an hour, then skin-side down broil it 6-10 minutes (or until it browns on top and flakes), brushing it with reserved marinade midway. If no skin, turn it over midway. I usually make rice (sometimes fried with ham and egg) and stir-fried lima beans with it, although there are lots of other options -- unfortunately, they almost all take longer to cook than the salmon.
Of course, there is much more you can do with salmon. I've had several guests tell me that Barbara Tropp's Clear-Steamed Salmon with Ginger-Black Bean Vinaigrette was the most delicious meal they had ever had. The ingredient list can be daunting -- my secret is Chef Chow's Szechuan Hot Bean Paste, which as far as I can tell is no longer sold (I've bought two jars in my life, both in NJ, one when I lived there in the early 1980s, the other when I moved back in the late 1990s -- I use it sparely but I'm almost out). But the techniques are pretty straightforward: marinate the salmon, steam it (over onion and spinach), mix up a big bowl of vinaigrette in the food processor, and spoon it over the steamed fish.
 I don't think I've ever made catfish from a recipe. I grew up on fried catfish, some of which I personally caught (well, not many). So I can do that, but nowadays what I prefer is dredge it in flour, sautee it in olive oil infused with a couple crushed cloves of garlic, and season with salt and pepper. Usually serve that with pasta. In fact, add some preserved lemon peel, chopped garlic, and capers to the oil I cooked the fish in and use it to sauce the pasta. Actually, you dump the pasta into the pan, put the fish on top, spritz it with lemon juice, and garnish with parsley.
Jenkins' book has become my go-to standard for Mediterranean, although I also use Claudia Roden, Paula Wolfert, Sarah Woodward, and lately Yotam Ottolenghi -- also Penelope Casas for Spanish, Marcella Hazan for Italian, and Tess Mallos for Greek and Middle Eastern. (Whoa! Just checked those names and discovered that the latter three, all in their 70s, died in 2012-13. Roden and Wolfert are also in their 70s. Don't know about Woodward, whose short but well-illustrated Classic Mediterranean Cuisine is a perfect first book on the subject -- and my still-best sources for a dozen or more recipes I've made many times, from Paella Valenciana to Imam Bayildi).
Someone once told me that if you can read a cookbook, you can make anything. I would like to think I've shown that to be true.
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