Friday, September 24, 2010

Sautéed cod with cannellini bean ragout, and a flashback from the 80-ies

Some people never learn. I tried to buy frozen fish at Trader Joe’s many times, and it never comes out right. After careful defrosting in the refrigerator, all their three kinds of wild salmon turn mushy, and tuna and mahi-mahi are very dry. But I’m stuck here in Marin County with no Chinese grocery this side of the bridges, and if I want fresh fish, it’s either Whole Foods almost fresh at $30/pound, or traffic on the bridge. I decided to chance it again, and bough frozen Alaskan cod at TJ’s. These super-tough fillet reminded me of my lean young years back in the Soviet Russia, so I chose a similar cooking method.

In the late 80-ies my then husband V. and I worked hard at the first Internet start-up in Moscow (both words “Internet” and “start-up” were barely known at the time), and usually sat glued to our terminals till one or two in the morning. Except once a week I would leave early and go check the usually empty grocery stores for food. If I couldn’t find any – too bad, we’d survive on cans and dried pasta. But sometimes I would get lucky and find something frozen. And then we’d eat.

Like that time, when they were selling whole frozen cod, head on, very cheap. And there was no line yet. Of course, I bought one, 10 pounds or so. I brought it home, and tried to fit it into the tiny kitchen sink, to speed defrosting with cold running water. No luck. The sink was too small, the fish too big, it tried to slip away and hit me on the foot with its frozen weight, all the while looking me in the eye with its frozen eyes the size of a 20-kopeik coin (like a quarter). After an hour of fighting with the fish and loosing, I got desperate and called V. for help. V. held the fish firm in place while I heated the knife over the gas stove and sawed it into steaks, plus the head and tail for the cat. By 3 am we were done.

… A few weeks later, I left work early and went checking empty neighborhood stores in search for food. I stumbled upon very cheap whole cod. There was no line yet. I bought one, stone-frozen, head-on, 10 pounds or so…

I’m telling you, there are people who never learn. 15 years later, I was walking in El Granada fisherman’s marina, and there was a boat that just came in from a multi-day fishing trip and they were selling albacore tuna, deep frozen at sea. 10 pounds or so, head-on. I did not have a husband at that time, but my dear dinner guests had a lot of fun heating a knife over a gas stove and sawing the fish into steaks that would fit into the sink to defrost under running water, plus head and tail for the cat.

The Trader Joe’s super-tough frozen cod fillet brought back all these memories.

This is how we cooked it then:

2 Tbsp sunflower oil
1 large onion, sliced
2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
2 red bell peppers, cored and sliced
4 large tomatoes, sliced
Salt, pepper, distilled vinegar, sugar to taste

2 Tbsp sunflower oil
About 1 kg cod, defrosted, skin and bones removed
Salt, pepper

Heat the oil over medium heat in a cast-iron pan. Add onions and garlic, cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add peppers, cook until soft, about 3 minutes. Add tomatoes; reduce heat to low, simmer until tomatoes start breaking apart, about 30 minutes. Adjust seasoning with salt, pepper, vinegar and sugar.

Heat the oil over medium heat in a cast-iron skillet. Season cod with salt and pepper. Cook until golden on both sides, turning once, 2-3 minutes per side.

Remove cod to a deep serving dish, cover with vegetable mixture. Chill and refrigerate until ready to serve. Serve cold over canned white beans in tomato sauce.

How I cook it now:

For the beans:

1 cup cannelloni beans
Sea salt

For the tomato sauce:

2 Tbsp olive oil
1 large yellow onion, roughly chopped
3 large garlic cloves, roughly chopped
3 lb very ripe tomatoes
10 basil leaves
Salt, pepper, red wine vinegar, brown sugar to taste

½ cup fire-roasted peppers (bought or homemade)
2 lb Alaskan cod fillet
Salt, pepper


Soak beans in boiling water to cover for an hour. Drain. Place in a large pan, add water to cover by 2 inches, bring to a boil. Reduce heat, add 1 tsp salt, and simmer until tender, about 2 hours. Drain.

Tomato sauce:

Heat oil in a large pan. Add onions and garlic, cook until tender, 7-8 minutes. Meanwhile, cut a cross on top of tomatoes, cover with boiling water, let sit 1-2 minutes, plunge into ice water. Remove skins. Chop tomatoes; add tomatoes and basil to the pan. Reduce heat; simmer until tomatoes start falling apart, about 30 minutes. Adjust the seasoning with salt, pepper, sugar, and vinegar. Puree in blender.

Heat oil in a wide skillet over medium heat. Season cod fillet with salt and pepper on both sides. Cook, turning once, 2-3 minutes per side.

Combine beans, tomato sauce, and fire-roasted peppers in a deep pan. Heat over low heat. Spoon some tomato-pepper-bean mixture on a plate, place a cod fillet on top, top with more tomato-pepper-bean mixture. Serve hot or at room temperature.

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