After some challenges, big and small, it is long past time to begin once more…
In some ways the biggest intervening challenge has been the smallest: the birth of our daughter Morag in November of 2015 – and moving house the summer before she was born. Seems we’ve been playing catch-up ever since, though what a wonderful game!
We have been looking to take on some of the fish dishes – which brings its own set of challenges for the responsible culinary re-enactor…
Whistler’s menus have a wide array of fish – cod, hake, herring, mackerel, salmon, sole, red mullet, trout, turbot, whiting, even whitebait. As we have noted in other entries, many of these fish, unless you get your sourcing just right, are simply not sustainable. According to my handy good fish guide, red mullet is right out, sustainable hake very hard to come by, and even what we thought were ubiquitous humble fish like whiting and mackerel have their own problems, either of their own stocks, or in the case of whiting of generating too much bycatch that is simply dumped back into the ocean, dead.
It can be painful to read the extra enthusiastic note that Mrs Beeton adds on the fecundity of codfish, especially in light of the fact that the Atlantic cod was placed on the endangered species list by the WWF (particularly due to the decline in the North-West Atlantic) a few decades ago:
So extensive has been the consumption of this fish, that it is surprising that it has not long ago become extinct; which would certainly have been the case, had it not been for its wonderful powers of reproduction. "So early as 1368," says Dr. Cloquet, "the inhabitants of Amsterdam had dispatched fishermen to the coast of Sweden; and in the first quarter of 1792, from the ports of France only, 210 vessels went out to the cod-fisheries. Every year, however, upwards of 10,000 vessels, of all nations, are employed in this trade, and bring into the commercial world more than 40,000,000 of salted and dried cod.
The more I read, the more I am tempted to just walk past the fishmongers at the open market.
As it happens, the supermarket actually does a lot more to stock and label sustainable fish. Their fresh selection is limited more or less to cod, haddock and salmon, plus farmed freshwater trout, tilapia and pangasius, but all of it has either an MSC or ASC label. The cod is caught with lines and hooks in the relatively healthy fisheries of the Barents and Norwegian seas. Fingers crossed it remains so…
This week, finally, there has been one more challenge: delicate stomachs. Without going into too much detail, this last week has seen a stomach virus go through our house, and stomachs are still recovering a bit. Best to keep it simple (and good).
Cod it is, then.
In a rather modest menu from September 13, 1877, Whistler includes “Cabilliaud [sic] au four” (baked cod), next to cold salt beef, leek soup, pastries and coffee. This would seem straightforward enough – and just the thing for possibly delicate stomachs. When consulting our main sources, however, it quickly became apparent that in much 19th Century cod cookery, ovens did not tend to play a large role. Escoffier says “Fresh cod is mostly served boiled, either whole, in sections…” and for the most part, sticks to that premise. Madame Saint-Ange’s La Bonne Cuisine (1927) and Mrs Beeton follow suit. The French cookbooks do offer a gratin – done in a rich and creamy and cheesy Mornay sauce (shhh! Don’t tell the Italians!), but there is some indication that if Whistler had meant that, he would have written it. And more to the point, Kathy’s face went a bit green at the suggestion.
Back to the books.
A few recipes in, Escoffier offers a recipe “à la Flamande”, where thick fish fillets are started on the stovetop and finished in the oven with white wine and herbs. Hardly ‘baked’ as we know it now, but the oven gets involved, and the result is quite satisfactory.
Cod au four (“à la Flamande”)
1 thick piece of cod filet per person (120g or so) – Escoffier says 1″ thick
fines herbes (tarragon, chives, parsley and chervil)
white wine, probably around 200ml
1/4 cup bread crumbs
Preheat oven to 200C.
Season the cod with salt, pepper and nutmeg, and put it in a buttered pan that works on both stovetop and the oven (it turned out our egg-poaching pan was the perfect size)
Add wine up to the height of the fish, and add the shallots and herbs (OK, I also could not resist adding a bay leaf, too…) and top with slices of lemon, with the peel and pith removed (if you can be bothered).
Bring this to the boil and then chuck it in the oven for 12 minutes.
The real fun begins after the fish is done. Decant the fish on to plate and then Escoffier says to “thicken their cooking-liquor with crushed biscotte”. I used plain old bread crumbs, added in a steady stream and whisked on the stovetop – you’ll want to do this to avoid lumps. After 5 minutes or so, you have something fairly thick, like the consistency of a good American gravy, like single cream – until it cools. It was this simple and easy sauce that was the real revelation (you will want to check salt levels – I thought it could use a bit more): rich, but does well with the firm white fish.
Will have to figure out what to do with the vast quantities of sauce we have left over…
Spring is upon us and with it the arrival of asparagus. Here in NL, the heavy white stuff is ‘normal’ but I was far more persuaded by the pencil-thin green stuff our organic shop had on offer, which seems to meet the description of what Escoffier calls “English asparagus, which is somewhat delicate in quality, but inclined to be small.” It shows up on rich Whistler menus – often in May – with very little other description. We opted out – this time – in doing anything more elaborate than boiling for a few minutes.
For the sake of feeding a toddler, I accompanied this with a mushroom, bulgur and dill pilaf (call it an homage to Jimmy’s childhood time in Russia….). It was also her first asparagus – and she left not a morsel on her plate!