Wednesday, 10 November 2010


I've been traveling.

Three weeks in Florida and Arizona, hobnobbing my way across the two states with wine in tow. And though in general, this means that I have not been cooking, and have been rather desperate to find something green and resembling a vegetable, there has, of course, been food.

There were cornmeal crusted, deep fried homemade pickles.

There was pecan chocolate pie.

There was beer brewed from milk.

There were salt and pepper shakers to oversee it all.

When I returned, I found that the fig tree in front of the winery office had finally ripened, and that my new apartment in San Francisco was more enchanting than ever.

And then, I made fish. Fresh, beautiful fish. Despite the fact that I never cook fish.

Don't get me wrong - I love it. But living in the country, the odds of being able to coordinate a purchase of a fresh fillet and the prompt cooking of said fillet are rare. We buy groceries for the week, not the evening, and fish never seems to make it's way into the equation.

However, in my new San Francisco digs I live just a few minutes walk from a butcher and fishmonger. My joy at the proximity is, in a word, inexpressible. And this weekend, taking advantage of my first Sunday evening in weeks when I did not have to catch a 6 am flight the next morning, I settled into an evening of cooking.

Or so I thought. The thing is, what I ended up cooking was so simple, I felt like I had barely lifted a finger.

I had purchased one half of a black cod (sans head and bones), the skin dark and glinting, the flesh white and dense. The lovely woman at the shop advised me to bake the fish, as the fatty, fleshy nature of black cod (also known as sablefish) is difficult to dry out and overcook.

My only experience with black cod has been Asian inspired, served in a restaurant visited recently - the black skin crusted with miso and cooked to the crispness of a light potato chip, with a gentle sweetness pervading the whole dish balanced by a tang of vinegar.

I wanted to aim for a similar crispy skin and combination of sweet and sour, but I also had a beautiful head of fennel and a basket of orange cherry tomatoes available to me. Roasted fennel and tomatoes being both delicious on their own, I thought they could only benefit from sharing the heat.

I roasted the fennel separately, to give it a head start. Meanwhile, I sliced the length of cod into individual portions, and seasoned them with salt, olive oil, lemon, some fennel fronds and a splash of mirin. Under the broiler this slid until the skin browned and curled at the ends, and then a few more minutes of heat to cook the fish through and thoroughly caramelize the fennel.

The cod was incredibly rich, and needed the crispness of the skin to balance the fatty nature of the flesh. The tomatoes sung with rich sweetness, the fennel was also sweet, yet earthly and subtle, and the lemon provided a little kick of acidity. The broth accumulated in the dish could have been served on its own it was so delicious and layered with flavors, but also showed quite nicely spooned over brown rice and drizzled over the fillets.

In the end, I was kicking myself for not buying and baking fish earlier. Healthy and fresh, the dish had tremendous flavor and made my anticipated atonement for weeks of restaurant food seem not quite as painful.

Baked Black Cod
serves 4

1 pound black cod, cut into four fillets
1 head of fennel, fronds reserved
1 cup cherry tomatoes
1/2 of a lemon
olive oil
sea salt

1) Preheat oven to 375 degrees, with one rack a few inches from the broiler and a second below. Slice the fennel bulb in half vertically, then lay each half down on the cut side. Slice vertically into 1/8 inch to 1/4 inch slices (I prefer mine thin). Spread on a cookie sheet, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Slide into the oven on the bottom shelf.

2) Chop the fennel fronds, roughly or finely, depending on your personality. Slice the lemon very thinly (use a mandoline if you have one.)

3) Preheat the broiler.

4) Arrange the fillets in a pyrex dish. Sprinkle liberally with sea salt. Drizzle each with 1 tsp (or so) of olive oil. Drizzle each with 1/2 tbsp (or so) of mirin. Arrange the cherry tomatoes alongside the fillets. Sprinkle with fennel fronds. Arrange the lemon slices. Slide under the broiler.

5) Cook under the broiler until the skin browns, 5 to 10 minutes. When browned, turn the broiler off and continue cooking at 375 degrees for 15 minutes.

6) Serve the fish and fennel over rice or your favorite grain, drizzles with the accumulated juices from the pan.