Lately, maybe due to the increased amounts of reading and study of food, I have delved into why cooking and writing about cooking is so pleasing and soothing to my nature. It is a fundamental element to our survival to begin with, but it truly takes a desire and eagerness to go above and beyond simple nourishment to an aesthetic presentation which not only satisfies your stomach but your eyes.
From an aesthetic standpoint, at an early age my mother ground fresh Montana wheat in her wheat mill to make different varieties from hard red wheat to spelt breads. I can remember the golden loaves emerging from the oven to be carefully lathered in butter to create a sheen that Van Gogh's stars would be proud of. And doubtless if you have read any of my former thoughts you understand that I attribute Southern heritage to a large portion of my appreciation and awe of good food. But, the more I read and write the more I understand from excerpts by Beard, Bourdain, Pepin, and mountains of others that a well rounded appreciation of food morphs and grows like living sourdough as time progresses. Bourdain does play an important role in food criticism and enlightenment today, though some disagree; in my mind and others psyche's his passion for exotic and sometimes simplistic cuisine fuels the fire of progress and passion.
To trace the path my passion for varying cultural delicacies began, I remember like yesterday first plunging into "A Moveable Feast" and the urges it impacted in me toward new foods and ways of preparation. A quote that resonates with me because I could relate and was still withdrawn is when he says, "I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine." In a way I felt like I was there sensing the coldness of the iced oyster liquor as I had slide down my throat as it had many times before. Yet when I first read the book I had never tasted the earthy acidity of a Gascogne white or an Alsace or a chalk soiled white Bordeaux. The reading was an awakening to new horizons and hills that lay both ahead and behind. A love of cooking and description, a world of ingredients and seafood specimens yet to be cooked.
Cod, the same species I prepared the other night, has controlled so many individuals lives through its harvesting and the cultures with a severe investment in it. I loved the massive flaky chunks of fried cod that we consumed in England, but to keep the plate moving, or presentation if you will, a soup came to mind when I ran across the influential fish at the market.
A soup with the Italian goodness of cioppino without the frills of crustaceans to dig from their shells. A soup you can dunk a fist of french bread into and be contented with the broth filled with essences of safflower (a cheaper alternative to saffron, the flower instead of the stamen). And, to be honest Cod happened to be my catch of the day in staying true to you cioppino fanatics. But, who wouldn't prefer a fillet of cod and bits of tomato to just broth and bread?
12oz. cod, skinned
1/2 tsp. anchovy paste
2 T. capers, and 1 tsp. brine
2 small Yukon gold potatoes
1-28oz. can stewed tomatoes (preferably San Marzano)
1 1/2 medium yellow onions roughly chopped
1 large or 3 small shallots finely chopped
7 garlic cloves finely chopped
1/4 C. olive oil plus some for brushing fish
2 T. Old Bay seasoning
6 T. unsalted butter plus 3 T. for baking fish
3 tsp. plus 1 tsp. for cod fillets
2 T. safflower petals
2 T. fresh rosemary coarsely chopped
1/4 C. sherry
1/4 C. dry white wine such as chardonnay
salt and pepper
Put olive oil and six tablespoons butter in heavy pot and saute onions, shallots, garlic, capers and brine, and potatoes for four minutes or until vegetables (except potatoes) are softened over medium/high heat. Add tomatoes with juice as well as red pepper flakes, old bay, safflower, and salt and freshly ground pepper. Make sure not to over salt as sauce will become more pungent as it reduces.
Meanwhile spread three tablespoons butter over gratin dish, lightly oil cod, and sprinkle with salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes and cook for approximately 12 minutes in 375 degree oven or until fish just begins to flake but is still firm.
Then add sherry and wine to soup, cooking alcohol off for a couple minutes and crushing tomatoes with potato masher if smoother consistency is desired. Soup should cook a total of twenty to twenty-five minutes. Lay fish on top of soup and garnish with rosemary. Enjoy with fish flaked into soup with a chunk of hearty bread and a very fruity unoaked chardonnay.